Hospital porter Part 2: Every comrade’s dream

Rob and Terry August 1975-1
©Steve Hammond

My girlfriend, who was away studying at York University most of the time, was very cross that I had joined the Workers Revolutionary Party. She was left-wing but she saw Trotskyist groups as no different to the religious cults that pestered young people at the time, such as the Moonies and the Children of God. In retrospect, she was entirely right. Sara had hoped that she would recruit the pair of us. When I told her about my girlfriend’s attitude, she said “She sounds like a right Tory” and told me that I should dump her. At around the same time, she told me not to bother with medical school because there was going to be a revolution within five years. Both suggestions seemed very poor advice to me. They were early warnings that something was not right about the WRP. Demands to cut ties with people and ambitions outside of the group are standard techniques of cults. There was no way that I was going to submit to restrictions of my autonomy, no matter that it was dressed up as revolutionary discipline. Nonetheless, I did sign up to Party membership. Shortly thereafter, Sara disappeared, having moved to a different post. Suddenly, I comprised the entire membership of the Brook Hospital branch of the WRP.

The Party was famous for recruiting heavily amongst the acting profession, most prominently Vanessa and Corin Redgrave. The large number of actor-members stood in stark contrast to the paucity of manual workers. Workers Press was published by the Party daily. As I rapidly discovered, it was extremely difficult to persuade workers to buy it. The content was dominated by condemnation of treachery by the Labour government and trades union leaders.  It often included lengthy essays on one aspect or another of dialectical materialism, a philosophical concept developed by Karl Marx to describe how history is driven by conflicting class interests. Despite my youth, I knew that these theoretical articles were only tenuously related to the work of Marx, and were often nonsensical. It was not just that they got their facts and philosophy wrong. They used a specific WRP jargon that was so idiosyncratic that it could not be understood, no matter how often you re-read it. Members were expected to study pamphlets and articles written in this secret language. The insistence that the incomprehensible contains profound truths is another technique shared with cults, a means whereby leaders assert authority and control over members. The paper had a consistent  editorial line that revolution was imminent. All national events, no matter how trivial, led to calls for a General Strike. These appeals for One Last Push had no relationship to reality and had no traction amongst the workers whose interests the Party purported to promote.

As the Brook Hospital branch of the WRP, I was expected to attend meetings several evenings each week, and to participate in newspaper sales outside of Hare St Dole (Woolwich Labour Exchange). The other members were mostly Sara’s age, friends with each other and welcoming in a well-brought up sort of way. They were graduates, teachers, public sector professionals and people in the performing arts. The two exceptions were a really bright uneducated man called Tommy, who was in and out of prison, and a rather wild Irish man called Kieran who drank heavily, had literary ambitions and worked as a projectionist in a porn cinema.

The rank-and-file were organised by a group of people who considered themselves to be professional revolutionaries. Our local organiser was Kevin, a slim, sharp-featured man with a high forehead and no noticeable sense of humour. He was about 30 years of age and invariably wore a trench coat. He looked like a secret policeman in a film, which was probably intentional, because his role was to harangue everyone. He intimidated and humiliated people, urging them to overcome their petite-bourgeois values and to work harder for the revolution. He sneered at people for looking like students rather than workers. The accusation was true but hardly surprising, because there were only three manual workers in the group, one of whom was me. Backsliders were instructed to read one or other of the Party documents on dialectical materialism and to explain the contents to the group. They were then further harangued for failing to properly grasp what they had read. As the documents were incoherent, it was a test you could only fail.

The informal aspects of being in the WRP were pleasant enough. Quite a few of the other members were interesting and funny, and we met regularly at people’s homes or in an old fashioned greasy spoon café around the corner from Hare Street Dole. There was very little drinking of alcohol, and, although I was vaguely interested in one or two of the women, there was little opportunity to pursue my interest because their Party work was so demanding.

The beginning of the end for me was the sudden disappearance of Kevin. Although he was a generally oppressive presence, he never picked on me. The group was oddly dependent on him. Then one day, he was not there, and he never returned. There was a lot of hushed conversation about this turn of events, but it was never clear what had happened. In private, there was speculation that he had fallen prey to revisionist tendencies (in other words that he had defected to another group or simply burnt out) or, more darkly, that he had been an agent provocateur in the pay of Special Branch or MI5 or the Stalinists. In the immediate aftermath of his departure, in order to steady our nerves, one of our meetings was attended by Mike Banda, second-in-command of the WRP. He was a middle-aged Sri Lankan with a portentous manner. He was entirely unremarkable but for the deference shown to him by the membership. One of the women I liked was chosen to go selling papers with him straight after the meeting. As she left, she smiled broadly and said to me “Every comrade’s dream…to do political work with Mike Banda”. I said nothing, but I thought “well, that’s definitely not my dream!”. I had started heading towards the out-door.

Every day except for Sunday, I had to pick up ten copies of Workers’ Press from another member’s front porch. I rarely sold more than one (to myself), but there was an expectation that branches would make up the short fall in their paper sales. There were also ten weekly subscriptions to be paid, not to mention demands for contributions to the “Fighting Fund”. I regularly received letters telling me I was in arrears. I had written to the Party telling them that there was only one of me, not ten, but still the demands for payment came. I stuffed the unsold papers into my locker each day. Eventually the whole lot fell out across the floor and there was no way of getting them back in the locker. By now the letters were saying that I owed £60 (my wages were £28/week). Seeing the papers strewn across the floor of the lodge made me realise how depressing and pointless being a member of the WRP was and I decided to leave. I phoned up one of the other members to say that I had left and I took the papers home, where I burnt them on the bonfire. The first of two consecutive long hot summers was about to start and I felt unburdened.

About a week later, a mini-bus pulled up outside of my parents’ house, and six men in donkey jackets and woollen beanie hats got out. Some of the were WRP members that I knew, but some were complete strangers. I confronted them on the doorstep and I declined to let them into the  house. They wanted the money I owed the Party, and they explained that easy payment terms would be available if I remained a member.

I am not intrinsically a particularly brave person, but from childhood I have had a visceral response to attempts to intimidate or bully me. If I get frightened, it is usually after the event. In the heat of the moment, I remain calm and push back rather than succumbing to an urge to placate aggressors. This has been really helpful at various points in my life. It is not due to courage, which would involve feeling fear and confronting it. I am just lucky that this happens to be how I respond. So it was on this occasion. I told them firmly that I would not be re-joining under any circumstances and I suggested that they pursue any outstanding financial matters through the county court. They backed off and left saying that they would return, but they never did. I was through the out-door.

About 10 years later, credible allegations were made that Gerry Healy, the obnoxious narcissist who founded and led the organisation, had been systematically sexually abusing female comrades for years. He led a life of luxury thanks to a series of highly unsavoury business deals with dictators in the Middle East, supplemented by the money that he harvested from his exhausted cadre of revolutionaries. The revelations caused the organisation to explode into fragments.

Picture 1

Gerry Healy

A few months after I left, I took a coach to York to visit my girlfriend. Queueing in Victoria Coach Station, I found myself standing next to Kevin, who was still wearing his trench coat. “Hi, Kevin” I said, “How are you doing?” It was the first time in my life that anyone looked at me with real fear in their face. He turned and ran as fast as he could, straight out of the coach station.

Bloomsbury, 1987

I am never very comfortable in BMA House. I have been a BMA member since I qualified, all except for a year or two when I was the vice-chair of the Junior Hospital Doctors Association. That organisation had had a leading role in the junior doctors strike of 1975, but it was in decline by the time I became involved. I have often been tempted to quit the BMA, most recently in disgust at their half-hearted support for the junior doctors strike of 2016. I remain a BMA member because, for better or worse, it is the doctors’ trade union and I believe that people should belong to a union when they can.

Being out of step and supporting lost causes are intrinsic to my life stance, so I often took unpopular positions at BMA meetings. As the “Achieving a Balance” meeting was to be my last, several people came up to me at lunch time to wish me well or to say that they agreed with what I had said but would be voting against me. I worked my way around the room until I was standing next to Sara.

“You won’t remember me, but I used to be a porter at the Brook Hospital when you worked in A&E there. You recruited me to the WRP”. Sara confirmed that she could not remember me, but that she still believed that revolution was the only way forward. She remained a member of the WRP, or rather, one fragment of it, and she was now a member of the Central Committee. I rather unkindly said that, given what had happen to the Party, the Central Committee probably comprised most of the membership. She acknowledged that the Party had had some “political problems” lately. She asked me about myself.

“I’m a senior registrar in psychiatry in Oxford. I’ve just applied for a consultant post in the North East. What about you?”

“I’m a surgical registrar.”

She frowned.

“So when we knew each other, you were a porter and I was a casualty SHO. Since then, you’ve been to medical school and completed training as a psychiatrist, and I’ve gone up one grade?”

It was hard to know what to say, so there was an awkward moment.

“I don’t know,” she said, “I think someone’s got it in for me”.