Norman Mackenzie: Editor, teacher, writer . . . spy?

Remembering the former NS staffer, who died on 18 June.

At Sussex in the 1960s, the historian Asa Briggs – who is still going strong in his 93rd year – recruited a motley crew of maverick dons. Their brains and personalities secured his new university’s reputation as an interesting place to be.

The art historian Quentin Bell, for example, sealed a lasting connection between Bloomsbury and the university. The publisher Peter Calvocoressi, like Briggs a veteran of Bletchley Park, was recruited to teach international relations. Neither would have mentioned Hut 3 outside Briggs’s office and yet another unorthodox recruit had connections with the security services that few colleagues could have suspected. Norman Mackenzie, the former New Statesman staffer who died on 18 June, no doubt boasted a file in MI5’s archives – but as suspect or agent?

Briggs considered Norman’s 20 years as Kingsley Martin’s assistant editor a suitable apprenticeship for teaching politics. Norman retained close links with the NS and became an authority on the paper’s founders, Beatrice and Sidney Webb. In the great Fabian tradition of marital and intellectual partnerships – the Webbs, the Hammonds, the Coles – he and his first wife, Jeanne, wrote a fascinating group portrait of the worthiest progressives in late-Victorian London. They followed up their biography of H G Wells with a history of the early Fabian Society, after which they began editing three volumes of the Webbs’ letters and four of Beatrice’s diaries.

The Mackenzies took pride in their monumental act of scholarship and praised Norman’s secretary as the one person able to decipher Beatrice Webb’s scrawl. Regrettably, I can’t recall this woman’s name but I can remember that her regular job was supporting the now Professor Mackenzie in his role as director of the School of Education.

Norman oversaw teacher training at Sussex for a decade and his appointment was a shrewd move by Briggs. Sussex operated a model ahead of its time, with postgraduate teacher trainees spending four days a week in school and one back on campus. The director adopted a hands-off approach to all matters vocational, leaving his suitably qualified staff to get on with supervising their students and conducting classroombased research.

Norman’s role, given his long-standing interest in education policy, was to advise the Labour government and, in particular, the then education minister, Shirley Williams. After the Conservatives’ victory in the 1979 general election, his Whitehall days were over and he spent more time in his office. That office was where I had spent much of the previous year working on my doctoral thesis. Norman was extraordinarily generous and supportive as I researched the history of the fledgling NS, mischievously planting ideas (“Go to Kew and see if Clifford Sharp was a spy” – like he was, perhaps?) and allowing me open access to the Webbs’ transcribed correspondence.

He was great company and my one regret is that I was so preoccupied with the paper’s early editors that I didn’t ask more about his own experiences. For example, now that I know that he trained at Osterley Park with George Orwell in late 1940, I wonder how seriously he took Tom Wintringham’s vision of the Home Guard as a revolutionary people’s militia.

At the start of 1980, Norman offered himself as the external examiner for my PhD and it was a sign of the times that nobody suggested a conflict of interest. The night before the viva,my interrogator telephoned to say that the thesis was fine so I should relax and enjoy the day, at the end of which he would provide the celebratory champagne – again, a scenario inconceivable today but a measure of the man.

In the magazine's leader the week after Norman Mackenzie's death, editor Jason Cowley wrote:

Norman Mackenzie, who has died aged 91, joined the New Statesman as assistant editor in 1943, having been recommended to the then editor, Kingsley Martin, by Harold Laski at the LSE. Norman worked on the paper for nearly 20 years before becoming an academic at Sussex University. He helped found the Open University, edited the diaries of Beatrice Webb and was the author of biographies of Charles Dickens and H G Wells. His political journey from the Independent Labour Party and the Communist Party to Labour and then the Social Democratic Party was complex and fascinating.

I got to know him only at the end of his life, when he was in poor health and knew he had a few months to live. I found him lucid, witty, acerbic and generous in his advice and guidance. He told me he stopped reading the NS when it embraced what he called the “silly left”. He had recently become a subscriber again: “It’s like coming back to the place after 30 years away to find someone has been polishing the doorknobs.”

Norman lived to read the centenary issue and kindly sent the editorial team a congratulatory card: “Was there ever such a progressive magazine!”

He was a last, cherished link with the old world of Orwell’s London and Kingsley Martin’s NS. His friend the historian Hugh Purcell said: “He died in the morning, having said to Gill [his wife], ‘Death is a swindle if a man cannot have a whisky in his hand.’”

Norman Mackenzie.

This article first appeared in the 01 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Brazil erupts

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Man in the mirror-ball: Simon Armitage's The Unaccompanied

With this mature, engaging and empathetic work, the poet softens the pain of passing years. 

The Unaccompanied, by Simon Armitage
Faber & Faber, 76pp, £14.99

“The centuries crawl past,” Simon Armitage notes in his new collection, “none of them going your way”. After a decade of acclaimed travelogues, transgressive prose poetry, and above all translation, Armitage has combed those centuries to produce innovative versions of ancient and medieval texts: Pearl, The Death of King Arthur, Homer’s Odyssey, Virgil’s Georgics. In The Unaccompanied he returns, refreshed from his sojourn in the past and bringing the classics with him; in the book’s dystopian present, in “Poundland”, Odysseus meets the ghost of his drunken comrade Elpenor not in the Underworld, but “slumped and shrunken by the Seasonal Products display”, the poem’s pseudo-archaic English underscoring its ironic rewriting of Homer. Meanwhile, the protagonist of “Prometheus”, holed up in a post-industrial wasteland, sees his father retrieve not fire, but a Champion spark plug.

To lighten its nightmarish visions, The Unaccompanied offers the same beguiling playfulness that has characterised Armitage’s verse from his 1989 debut, Zoom!, to the “Merrie England” of Tyrannosaurus Rex versus The Corduroy Kid (2006). “Tiny”, for instance, reads like an old-school Ladybird Book (“Simon has taken his father, Peter,/to the town’s museum”) and “The Poet Hosts His Annual Office Christmas Party” makes a mischievous nod to Yeats. As ever, there are pinpoint references to popular culture; in “Gravity”, it is the “six-minute-plus/album version” of Fleetwood Mac’s “Sara” that plays on the stereo in the sixth-form common room. Yet Armitage’s concern for the socially excluded – the “skinny kid in jeans and trainers” from “The Ice Age” to whom the poet offers a spurned coat, “brother to brother” – burns unabated.

This collection articulates a new anger that is more personal, a lament for individual mortality, the sadness of time moving on too far and too fast. In “The Present”, the poet attempts to take an icicle home to his daughter:

a taste of the glacier, a sense of the world

being pinned in place by a
diamond-like cold

at each pole, but I open my hand

and there’s nothing to pass on, nothing to hold.

Armitage’s fluid poetics are pitch-perfect and his imagery remains incisive. The bare winter larch trees become “widowed princesses in moth-eaten furs”. In “Poor Old Soul” an elderly man sits, “hunched and skeletal under a pile of clothes,/a Saxon king unearthed in a ditch”. This is the measured poetry of late middle-age, in which only the promise of more loss fills the “white paper, clean pages”. In “Kitchen Window”, the poet’s mother taps the smeared glass before she falls away “behind net curtains” and then further “to deeper/darker reaches and would not surface”. “Emergency” (published in the NS in 2013) could almost be his audition for Grumpy Old Men. “What is it we do now?” he asks as he details the closed banks, and pubs where “tin-foil wraps/change hands under cover/of Loot magazine”. W G Hoskins’s gentle topological classic is referenced in “The Making of the English Landscape”, though a very different country is seen at dusk from a satellite:

like a shipwreck’s carcass raised on a
sea-crane’s hook,

nothing but keel, beams, spars, down to its bare bones.

In “Harmonium”, the poet’s father – who, in 1993’s Book of Matches, berated him for having his ear pierced – helps his son lug an unwanted organ from their local church and reminds him “that the next box I’ll shoulder through this nave/will bear the load of his own dead weight”.

Armitage’s poetic world is instantly recognisable, always inclusive. We know the faded ballrooms that turn into even sadder discos in “The Empire”. Or the clumsy children’s shoe fitter of “The Cinderella of Ferndale”, who leaves her own footprints of disappointment. As the poet stumbles on a farmers’ fancy-dress parade for a breast cancer charity in “Tractors”, the slight incident bleeds into the universal shock of diagnosis: “the musket-ball/or distant star/in your left breast”. Critics often cite Philip Larkin as an influence on his work, but Armitage’s highly tuned sense of such “mirror-ball” moments – small but refracting repeatedly across time and lives – is all his own. Thankfully, with this mature, engaging and empathetic work, he is back to record them for us, softening the pain of passing years. 

Josephine Balmer is a poet and classical translator. “Letting Go: Mourning Sonnets” will be published by Agenda Editions in July

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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