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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Poo jokes and pessimism – the scatological legacy of British humour

Is it simply a testament to our good nature, or a sign of a darker kind of cynicism?

Many Brits will have amused themselves this summer by packing a tent, stashing their narcotics and heading over to a muddy field in the middle of nowhere to brave the torrential rain at a music festival.

Wallowing in the mud and other more faecal byproducts to the soundtrack of up-and-coming bands is considered the peak of hedonism for many in the UK, and there is something quintessentially British about the way we willfully embrace the general state of depravity that most of our festivals inevitably collapse into.

One internet meme that perfectly epitomises the difference between British and American festival culture shows an image of a woman at a US event pulling a sad face as she reveals the worst thing she’s seen: “Spitting on the ground.” On her right, a British man slumped in a camping chair holds up his sign, reading: “A man covered in his own shit sniffing ketamine off his mate’s unwashed scrotum.”

There’s a cheerful pride with which Brits embrace bodily dysfunction as a part of our comic culture, and a common trope of British humour involves undermining the stiff upper lip attitude associated with English people, often with an act of complete depravity that dispels any illusion of class and respectability. Britons have always been partial to a good old-fashioned dose of scatological humour, from Chaucer’s bawdy fabliaux that celebrate obscenity, to Shakespeare’s Falstaff, or Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or Swift’s "Scatological Cycle".

Much of the comic effect that these writers create derives from undermining high-brow intellect or spirituality with the low-brow of the rear end – for example the part in Chaucer’s Summoner’s Tale, where the division of an old man’s fart into 12 serves as a parody of the descent of the holy ghost at Pentecost.

Faeces has long since been ingrained in our past literary and historical culture – after all, as the great Shakespeare was writing some of the western world’s most seminal pieces of English literature, his chamber-maid was most likely throwing pieces of his own faeces out of the window next to him.

In English literature, scatological humour can be juvenile, but it has also been used to represent wider social anxieties. In turning bottoms up and exposing the rear end, "shiterature" is often about breaking taboos, and exposing the dirty underbelly of society. Part of the "civilising" process that societies perform to reach a high level of sophistication involves distancing oneself from one’s own excrement, and scatology reverses this by shedding a light on our dirtiest natural habits. Swift’s excremental vision asked us to peel back the mask of genteel individuals, revealing their true and disgusting selves.

Scatology can also represent collective self-disgust, and has been used to question the integrity of a British national identity that has in the past denied its colonial wrongdoings. In Tristram Shandy, the protagonist's porous and leaking diseased body has been interpreted as a metaphor for the British Empire, and indeed the whole being of the Shandean gentleman is sub-textually supported by British colonialism, being as they are descended from merchants who profited from eastern goods sold to the European bourgeois and aristocrats.

Scatology has been used to represent hypochondria, the crisis of the aristocracy, self-disgust and sexual disgust – incidentally all things that we might find at an English festival.

The onslaught of the modern era hasn’t managed to dispel our fondness for injecting sophisticated comedy with snippets of scatological humour. In Peep Show for example, a show largely appreciated for its dry wit and irony, a hilarious scene involves Mark suffering from uncontrollable diarrhea as his boss watches on in disgust. Another brilliant scene is where Jeremy’s employer at the gym confronts him with a plastic bag filled with a human stool, which Jez had used to frame another employee for pooing in the pool.

In a similar vein, one of the most famous scenes in The Inbetweeners is where the uptight Will manages to poo himself during one of his A-level exams. In the second movie, there is another disgusting poo in the pool scene.

In the dark comedy series The Mighty Boosh, characters reference "taking a shit" on objects ranging from a salad, to a swan, to even "your mum". Almost all of these characters (Mark from Peep Show, Will from The Inbetweeners and The Mighty Boosh's Howard Moon) see themselves in some way as representative of a modern British gentleman – prudish, well educated and well spoken. Each of them at points embarrasses themselves and their image with reference to their bowel movements.

It’s a cliché that British humour is about losers, and that we are more prone to self-deprecation than our friends across the pond – a cliché that is not without some truth. 

Admittedly nowadays, much American humour similarly relies on self-deprecation and laughing at the sorry fate of "losers", but cynicism and irony are more fundamental to British comedy. On commenting on the difference between the American and British versions of The Office, Ricky Gervais once said that in the UK: "Failure and disappointment lurk around every corner… We use (irony) as liberally as prepositions in every day speech. We tease our friends. We use sarcasm as a shield and weapon." 

It is certainly true that in Britain, we are particularly pre-occupied with laughing at the failures of the self, and this can manifest itself potently through deprecation of the body.

Maybe the general sense of pessimism that is alluded to so much in the UK is due to our dismal weather, and maybe our ability to laugh at ourselves and our dysfunctions is a simply a testament to our good nature, and something to be applauded. Perhaps it is just something in the air rising from our manure-ploughed green and pleasant lands that inspires in our British comedians the desire to return time and time again to the scatological trope. Or perhaps, if we dig a bit deeper into our dung-fertilised lands, we might find that an anxiety about the foundations of British identity is behind the relentless desire to represent the permeability of the personal and national body.

Should we be embracing our tendency towards self-deprecation, or does it lead to a more problematic kind of cynicism that is restrictive, making us resistant to the idea of radical change? Perhaps we are destined to remain stuck in the mud forever, grumbling about the bad weather as we desperately shelter from the rain under a gazebo, sipping on the dregs of warm beer, pretending we’re having a good time – and who knows? Maybe this is what a good time looks like. Swift once told us to bless the "gaudy tulips raised from dung" – British comedy continues to do so quite literally.