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How Noël Coward made me a Marxist I realised that it wasn't just prime ministers and Catholic priests who could lead a double life

Paul Mason at a recent protest. Credit: Peter Summers/Getty Images

October 22, 2019   5 mins

It was 1973, and we had started to see graffiti on the walls of our town, saying “Heath Out”. I remember asking my Dad what it meant. He told me that Ted Heath, the prime minister, was attacking the trade unions, which would soon call a general strike and overthrow his government. He also told me that Heath was gay, that everybody knew this, and that the newspapers were protecting him by not reporting it.

That was how, at the age of 13, I became aware that the placid politics of the 1960s would be replaced by class warfare. And that behind the facade of Seventies respectability, the establishment lived secret lives according to different rules.

Soon, my dad’s prediction came true. The miners’ strike forced power cuts and the three-day week. I remember my schoolfriends, sent home early, pilfering from market stalls in the pitch dark.

But I don’t think the outbreak of class struggle would have had the same radicalising effect on me had it not coincided with my discovery that Catholicism was a sham.

At my school, the priests who taught us railed every day against the twin evils of masturbation and homosexuality. But on arrival we were told by older boys to avoid entering a room alone with some of them, in case we got “touched up”. And in the name of gentle Jesus meek and mild, some were in the habit of inflicting random, psychopathic violence.

This atmosphere of political crisis, combined with the daily experience of hypocrisy and menace at school made me search for answers. And by coincidence, answers were already lodged into my brain — because at the age of 10 I’d played one of the newsboys in Noël Coward’s play This Happy Breed.

Coward’s portrait of a working class family during the General Strike, the Depression and the Munich crisis includes a character called Sam Leadbitter, a caricature communist from central casting. Sitting in the wings at night after night, I found his lines the most vivid. My 10-year-old brain did not see Leadbitter as a caricature at all, but rather the only honest character among a bunch of “apathetic, unthinking, docile supporters of a capitalistic system which is a disgrace to civilisation”, as Sam himself puts it.

These lines stuck with me. Unwittingly, and from beyond the grave, it was Noël Coward who steered me from hormonal teenage revolt to a real and lifelong engagement with the world’s most coherent liberation theology: Marxism.

I read The Communist Manifesto in the school library, together with an introduction by A. J. P. Taylor designed to convince us that it was bullshit. One priest noticed what I was doing and tried to engage me in a discussion about Catholic social teaching. I curtailed the discussion by telling him that Catholic social teaching was bullshit, and that belief in God was irrational. But my Marxism remained, at this stage, book-learned and pretty basic.

Then, aged 15, I went to a youth club disco. At the edge of the dancefloor were some very tough looking kids — Irish, black, Italian — who I’d lost touch with after primary school. A record came on that cleared all the Slade fans off the dancefloor: crackly silence; a black man’s voice wailing. Then a crunchy R&B tune kicked in, and all the rough lads threw themselves into a dance that was a mixture of kung fu, shuffling and acrobatics. They did the splits; they spun like ballerinas. This was the Northern Soul culture in its heyday and within a couple of minutes, I was part of it.

I now discovered that it was not just the establishment and the Catholic clergy that could live a double life, but everybody. There was a mass criminal underworld selling drugs all over the North of England, organising thefts from pharmacists or shipping “backstreet” drugs from Amsterdam. To get to the Northern Soul all-nighters you had to catch the last bus and stay out all night, and hunch in doorways at first light until the bus and train services restarted.

Suddenly I was part of a vast working-class Bohemia, operating with absolute solidarity in the face of police raids and searches. We idolised the black kids on our scene, and we venerated black performers like Major Lance and Jackie Wilson. We were white working-class kids curating the R&B music of Detroit and Memphis, and the rest of the world could go to hell.

So when the National Front started holding their racist “anti-mugging marches”, we knew what we had to do. I remember waking hand in hand with my girlfriend as a military-scale convoy of police riot vans sped past us, on the way to confront an Anti-Nazi League protest. I told her: “Next time, I’m joining in”.

That was how I ended up on my first political demonstration: a 25,000 strong Anti-Nazi League demo in Manchester, in July 1978. My mum told me not to get into trouble. I went alone, spoke to no-one apart from to say “no thanks” to a Left-wing newspaper seller. I marched, I chanted, and then I got hit in the face with a heavy banner pole after the wind snapped it. It took a lot to convince Mum that I had not become some kind of anti-fascist rioter.

That is how — via atheism, soul music and strife — I became politicised.

Looking back, across 40 years of political engagement with the Left, some of the ideas that crystallised in my head at the age of 15 have remained pretty constant: a total lack of deference to authority figures; the default assumption that politicians and religious leaders are corrupt liars; a general preference for spontaneous action; a lifelong revulsion against racism.

Another legacy is that I always understood the importance of counterculture in working class life. Northern Soul, punk and later hip-hop and garage for me had a political meaning, embodied in the taking and holding of physical space at night, for the breaking of rules and the mixing of ethnicities and sexualities.

There are people on the Left who fetishise the old working class culture I come from, and who construct a nostalgia project around it. But for me, alongside the official signifiers of beer drinking, football and respectability, real working class culture has always included a counterculture — of drugs, music, iconoclasm and evading arrest.

I think that’s what inoculated me from the nostalgiafest, and allowed my political commitment to adapt in an age where political opposition movements are full of diverse, networked, educated people.

With hindsight, it also looks like the work of that progressive priest was not in vain. To defeat the Catholic humanism of Rerum Novarum, I had to build, out of the texts available to me at sixteen, a Marxist humanism, with ethical and moral implications. This has strengthened throughout my life.

Today we are faced with anti-humanism on all sides: from the far-Right, with its race science and violent misogyny, to Silicon Valley, where humans are seen as “already algorithms”, lacking agency and free will. At its most extreme, the post-humanism movement seeks to replace homo sapiens with hybrids of machines and flesh.

My opposition to this is based largely on the conclusions I reached in the school library in the Seventies: human beings have evolved as imagineers, teamworkers and linguists. On that basis it is possible to propose they will free themselves through technological change and self-liberation. If you strip out all the specifics about class, economic crisis and poltical tactics, that’s the basic proposition of Marxism.

Paul Mason is a journalist, film-maker and author, most recently of Clear Bright Future: A radical defence of the human being.


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