‘I used to think Marx’s or Lenin’s books said communists must go camping’
Saturday 18th November 2017
MICHAEL ROSEN talks to the Star about his communist parents, his childhood, Jeremy Corbyn, Brexit and art.
I DON’T associate with many creative power couples. The Beckhams call, but there are only so many hours in the day. I’d be surprised, though, if they came much more productive or interesting than Michael Rosen and Emma-Louise Williams.
Williams, a radio producer and film-maker, is curating the current art exhibition at Bow’s Nunnery Gallery, along with her husband. It centres on the life and work of the extraordinary Albert Turpin: window cleaner, firefighter, anti-fascist and post-war mayor of Bethnal Green.
Turpin was a member of the East London group of working-class male and female artists, who painted life as they saw it in a way that was ground-breaking.
As well as the paintings, the exhibition displays Turpin’s sketch books — a pencil drawing of Mother, Asleep is breathtakingly tender — and his scrap books, which show how crucial politics were to him; he carefully preserved cuttings detailing the rise of fascism in the 1930s East End and the push-back from men and women like himself.
Williams has also created the show’s soundscape — an aural tapestry of voices and sounds evoking Turpin’s East London.
She tells me she has a long fascination with what the Germans call Strassenrausch — street clamour — and is often to be found around London, happily recording all its manifestations.
She and Rosen collaborated on the 2011 film Under the Cranes, set in Hackney, which uses both sound and image to capture the atmosphere of the place.
Merging words from a voice play by Rosen with geo-history and the testimony of migrants to the area from Bangladesh, Ghana and the Congo, it’s both dreamlike and politically forceful, showing us 1930s street fights with fascists and raising urgent questions about the treatment of migrants, regeneration and “gentrification.”
Rosen’s new memoir, So They Call You Pisher! (a Yiddish expression meaning “What’s the worst that could happen?”) is also redolent with the presence of the past.
The absences of Jewish relatives, there before the war then just gone, and of Rosen’s elder brother Alan, who died in infancy and whose existence Rosen discovered by chance only when he was 10, were palpable in his childhood. His mother Connie never spoke Alan’s name to him or acknowledged that she knew he knew about him. That silence must have reverberated.
Rosen is proudly the child of this intriguing, intellectually engaged couple. He and Williams come today from a meeting on education, and Rosen’s mother and father, both teachers, developed separate reputations as educational theorists.
Williams has to rush off to finish a blog as well as be ready for their 12-year-old’s return from school and, after we talk, Rosen is headed to Brighton for a publicity event for Pisher! and to meet an old friend — poet, legendary activist and CP member Len Goldman, now a mere 101 years old.
But the former Children’s Laureate still submits graciously to what must be a strikingly unprofessional interview in his publicity round (proper journalists don’t rant intemperately about politics, I think, or fail to make comprehensible notes).
Tremendously good company, Rosen is interested in everything and has read everything (probably twice), but wears his knowledge lightly, with no detectable pomposity.
His warmth and enthusiasm are palpable in his work, and key to the huge popularity of his children’s writing. He was one of the first poets not simply to draw on his childhood experiences for his poems, but recount them in words children could understand, and would use.
He’s modest and honest about the creation of his blockbusting kids’ book We’re Going on A Bear Hunt. It is based on an US folk song he used to perform live and his editor commissioned the magical illustrations by artist Helen Oxenbury.
Impossible as it is now to imagine the book without them, Rosen couldn’t at first see how drawings and text would combine, but trusted the process. It was only feedback from young readers down the years which made him fully appreciate what he and Oxenbury had created.
Men of letters tend not to admit to either their strokes of luck or cock-ups along the way, preferring to imply all was planned with godlike genius — not so Rosen.
In his memoir, he shares awkward moments like the sketch he devised at college in Oxford, intended to mock capitalism, which instead appeared to lampoon a flat-capped worker and the forthright consternation of his father on seeing it.
There was also a youthful essay he felt rather brilliantly skewered Jonathan Swift, until his tutor gently pointed out that Swift’s irony had gone soaring over his head: “I had been a knakke (‘know-all’), and thought I could rumble Swift… You can never rumble Swift,” he says. This is something of a relief, given the otherwise imposing scale and scope of Rosen’s achievements.
As well as the memoir, he has a collection of political poetry, Listening to a Pogrom on the Radio, and a biographical work on Emile Zola’s exile in England out this year alone. He presents the Radio 4 stalwart Word of Mouth and has advised the government on literature and literacy.
When his 18-year-old son Eddie, whom Rosen has called the hub of the family, died suddenly from a strain of meningitis, Rosen managed to parlay desolation into a campaign to add a vaccine to the childhood immunisation schedule and a book which helps children deal with grief.
Much of his art is for more than art’s sake, contributing something to the greater good or focusing on those who have, such as Turpin, who confronted British fascists head on, or Zola, who made his own life difficult by challenging anti-semitism at the highest level over the Dreyfus Affair.
He is very much a public artist, in and of the world, not sequestered in a study but out here with the rest of us, worrying about inequality and discombobulated by Brexit. As he’s written, “Poetry can stick up for the weak or it can mock the mighty; it can glorify our rulers or it can dissect them. You choose.”
Rosen’s father Harold joined the Young Communist League in 1935 and there met Rosen’s mother Connie Isakofsky.
In 1936, the young couple were at the battle of Cable Street; Connie would later work in the typing pool of the Daily Worker, the forerunner of the Morning Star.
Rosen’s childhood was shaped by their politics. His memoir recalls the Tuesday evening routine in his childhood home. He writes: “Now, boys, off you go to bed. We’ve got a party branch meeting.”
“Len Goldman himself was a regular attendee. My father said [he] was terrific’ but sometimes, no-one came.
“Even so, my parents still held their branch meeting. We sat on the stairs and they went into the front room and shut the door.
“I’ve often wondered how those particular meetings went…”
The young Michael copped some flak, too, for his and his parents’ views. A teacher he admired looked sideways at the May Day badge on Rosen’s school blazer and sneered: “Oh. We’re communists, are we?”
Bemused, he told his mum about the incident: “She looked into the distance for a moment and then glanced down at my shoes. She gasped. ‘Look at your shoes. You haven’t polished them. They’re going to think communists are people who don’t polish their shoes’.”
Childhood for the Rosen boys also involved Communist Party camping holidays. “No-one in my school went camping…
“Somewhere in one of those books by Karl Marx or VI Lenin on our shelves, I used to think, it must say communists go camping.”
Camps in France began a life-long love affair between Rosen and France and Frenchness (this has served him well: his page-turner of a book on Emile’s exile to England is all the more so because of Rosen’s translations of Zola’s letters home. It’s compelling to see the great author and political crusader moaning about English cooking — to both his wife and his mistress).
Rosen’s parents left the CP in 1957 though never disengaged from socialist politics.
I ask Rosen how they responded to the anti-semitism they inevitably encountered as a Jewish couple. He tells me they had very different approaches.
His father Harold let insults glance off him, and rather enjoyed baiting anti-semites. From his mother, however, he saw occasional manifestations of the pain and anger absorbing prejudice had caused her, as on the occasion she and Harold were lambasted, post-Hungary, for “betraying the working classes” with their CP membership. “Who else” she asked her accuser, “was going to stick up for us?”
Rosen’s father Harold comes across as formidable in the book, if not to his son, certainly too others; one girlfriend thought him something of an intellectual “ogre.”
I ask Williams how she got on with her late father-in-law. “Very well,” she tells me, though his primary relationship was always with Michael and she bonded with him initially over their shared interest in what made Rosen Junior tick. Through Harold’s reminiscences, she came to know the boy and young man who became her husband (‘It was a conspiracy!” chips in Michael).
I tell Rosen I found his mother a more mysterious presence in the book — harder to grasp. This isn’t a failure of characterisation, though, but deliberate.
Rosen found her that way too and realises that her maternal role was perhaps at the heart of that. The “comforts of philosophy” had to cede to day-to-day-life concerns about what to do about the corned beef, for example, of which she had a cupboard full when there was a health scare about it. Connie’s response was typically gnomic, keeping the tins, but not opening them until the panic was over.
After his mother’s death, Rosen came upon a piece of her autobiographical writing about her girlhood and felt he encountered a woman he didn’t quite know, with thoughts and feelings he hadn’t heard her express.
“I think that she must have felt there wasn’t the space in our home for her to say those things … She wasn’t given (or she didn’t take?) the space for that kind of reflection … the airwaves were taken up by Harold, me and Brian,” he writes. Even in a loving, fairly egalitarian household, corned beef can stifle a woman.
Connie really found herself, Rosen says, when she began to study educational theory in earnest and became known in her own right. She gave a series of morning talks on the BBC and suddenly people were coming to the house not for Harold but to talk to Connie.
I ask him if any of her writing is available now and he tells me he’s going to collate them, as he has his father’s.
Success has not steered Rosen’s own politics to the right. He contributed in 2015 to the e-book Poems for Corbyn.
How does he think Labour is doing now? He remains supportive of Corbyn but says he’s worried by signs Labour might “wobble” on immigration. He’s rightly adamant that the Left should always oppose protectionist arguments, such a dangerously slippery slope.
Labour should just tell the truth loudly and clearly. He thinks migration is and has always been a huge benefit to this country.
And Brexit? He is, he says, a “militant abstainer.” He sees the whole thing as an argument between sections of capital in which socialists wouldn’t involve themselves. “Corbyn should say one thing — that our concern is just jobs, conditions and services. Beyond that, let them fight it out.”
He uses the rather good analogy of of a boxing ring. All the lights and focus are on the two fighters in battling it out, but that’s not where the real game is. Surrounding the ring, quiet in the dark, sit the real players — the money and the men and women whose only interest is profit and who will always try to fix the match to their advantage.
He adds that he knows Labour is preparing for power and trying to cover all bases, that, inevitably the day after a Labour victory, billions will be wiped off the economy and the gloves will really be off. If we think the Establishment has gone after Corbyn before, we’ll see that was nothing, he says.
“[The capitalists elite] doesn’t care who’s in charge, as long as it’s a safe pair of hands for capital and its interests. Blair was fine, Corbyn is not.”
Our response, he says, must be to refuse to be panicked and simply call out the false narrative of the Establishment and media. “We should constantly ask them to prove it, to show us one immigrant who caused the flight of capital that has really rocked the economy, one immigrant who caused Dagenham.
“We should question what they mean when they say it’s ‘bad for the economy’. What is our economy? It’s a capitalist system and we have to constantly remind people of that.”
Would Rosen act as adviser to the Corbyn camp, if asked? Probably, he says, though on an independent basis. He is not a Labour Party member. Had he joined during Corbyn’s early term, he thinks he would have been used as a “scalp” in the same way Mark Steel was and refused membership.
He doesn’t agree, however, with my gloomy assessment that the Right has won the battle of language and thought.
Labour’s slogan, For the many not the few, he points out, is quite brilliant in its simplicity, Marx in a sentence, which has succeeded in turning the debate.
As we wrap up, I tell him that, although his career is inspiring in its refusal to accept limits (why “just” be a poet when you can also write biography, memoirs, plays?), it also seems impossible to emulate today.
Young people wanting a broad artistic career are often told they must “settle down” and specialise. I expect Rosen to agree that his trajectory would be hard to emulate, but, cheeringly, he’s having none of that. He doesn’t accept its uniqueness. “Look at the comedians who act, write and so on.”
He also thinks it would be entirely possible to do today. “I lived on soup for a long while and had one pair of trousers and one pair of shoes, but you can do it.” The key, he says, is to take projects that really interest you, regardless as far as possible of the money, because they will usually lead somewhere interesting.
Surely it’s a tougher world now, though, with arts cuts and austerity? Rosen points out that there are also the advantages of the internet and social media, allowing artists to market themselves more effectively than before. He offers some useful pointers. Keep your website clear and up-to-date, make it obvious what skills you offer and easy to book and contact you.
It’s nice to hear. Too often, those who have “made it” seem more interested in pulling up the ladder after them than helping others climb it.
Rosen’s career is also an illustration of Marx’s observation that most people possess a wide range of interests and abilities which they would enrich over their lives if capitalism wasn’t so stultifying limiting for the “cogs” in its machine.
In the awkward moment where you’ve said goodbye then realise you’re going in the same direction, Rosen has to walk with me to the station.
I feel sorry for him but he’s typically nice about it, and regales me with stories of treatment for his ongoing hip problem which necessitates “having my bum electrocuted, basically.” You wouldn’t, I imagine, have got this from Wordsworth, I ask.
At the last minute, I remember I wanted to ask him about an unusual facet of his autobiographical writing. I’d noticed he rarely tells the reader what the people in his life look like. Is this a deliberate strategy to make us focus on their personalities and voices alone?
Rosen thinks for a second, then says: “I suppose I’m just not very good at all that…” I raise an eyebrow: that seems unlikely for a writer of his calibre. “And I suppose it’s because when I went to school at Watford Boys, I got a lot of negative comments. I was told I looked weird. I think it’s because I looked Jewish, probably.”
As a result, he feels uncomfortable focussing on people’s appearances, to the extent that he feels guilty about having described someone several times as bald. “But he was bald,” I ask. “Yes, but I still feel bad about it.”
Michael Rosen is a poet, biographer, memoirist, film-maker and art curator.
Emma-Louise Williams and Michael Rosen’s free exhibition The Working Artist: The East London Group is on at the Nunnery Gallery until December 17. Entrance is free. For more informatiob visit: bowarts.org.