Kunzru's complaints

Hari Kunzru finds alarming parallels between recent student protests in Britain and 1960s America.

In this week's New Statesman the British novelist and critic Hari Kunzru has reviewed Flying Close to the Sun: My Life and Times as a Weatherman by Cathy Wilkinson. The book is a highly personal account of the left wing Weatherman movement in America, as the author was heavily involved in it herself and it was in her father's house in Manhattan that the now infamous town-house explosion occurred in 1970. Kunzru finds there are disturbing parallels between the febrile atmosphere of 1960s radical America and the student protests in present day Britain:

The present debate about kettling, the use of Forward Intelligence Teams, violent tactics and just plain thoughtless violence all had their equivalents in the militant scene of the 1960s. Contemporary organisers would do well to consult Wilkerson (and other veterans) if they wish to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past. Her account of the criminal COINTELPRO operations mounted against the American new left, which went as far as political assassination of Black Panthers and prison activists, should give pause to those who believe that the policing of protest (in contemporary America) is always scrupulously apolitical. The use of agents provocateurs and the provision of "bait" for angry crowds are not new.

Kunrzu was a vocal supporter of the December student protests against the rise in tuition fees in the UK. On the day of the parliamentary vote on the increase in university fees last month, the author of My Revolutions (a novel partially set in the highly factional, politically radical atmosphere of British universities in the 1960s) demonstrated his support for the protesters on twitter: "Sending solidarity to everyone charging around London trying to defend UK education."

The novelist has also been campaigning against proposed cuts to library services across England. Kunzru commented on the proposed closure of libraries in a short, highly personal article: "I know that a public library is not the same as a book shop. It's also not the same as the internet. The child choosing a book that, for a short time, will belong to him, is learning that knowledge is his, if he wants it. He's learning that it's a right. Libraries set people free. They're not a luxury. They're not a relic. We must fight to save them."

In November 2010 Kunzru caused controversy when giving the opening speech at the European Writers' Parliament in Istanbul, by referring to Turkey's highly questionable record on human rights and free speech.

Read Hari Kunzru's full review in this week's New Statesman.

Donmar Warehouse
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Limehouse raises the question of when party loyalty becomes political irresponsibility

Labour's “Gang of Four” are brought to life brilliantly at the Donmar Warehouse.

A star of the Labour Party right wing, exiled from the shadow cabinet for deviating from the dominant orthodoxy, rants about how a decent but weak Labour leader, with an election-losing anti-European, anti-nuclear manifesto, risks letting the prime minister get away with whatever she wants.

Laughter shows that the audience gets what the dramatist Steve Waters is up to. Limehouse takes place on 25 January 1981, when a gentle veteran, Michael Foot, seems to be leading Labour to such sure oblivion at the next election that Dr David Owen has summoned his fellow moderates Shirley Williams, Bill Rodgers and (just back from a stint running Europe) Roy Jenkins to Sunday lunch in his kitchen in east London. This meeting led the “Gang of Four”, as they became known, to make a statement of estrangement from Labour that heralded the creation of the Social Democratic Party.

Waters was inspired by a New Statesman interview in which Rodgers wondered if the left-right divide under Jeremy Corbyn might justify a similar evacuation of the pragmatists now. The debates that the play stages – fidelity to party and national tribes against a fear of political and historical irrelevance – feel hotly topical.

Williams, considering an offer to abandon Labour and teach at Harvard, faced then the dilemma of an Ed Balls or Tristram Hunt now. And Labour members today who fantasise about a new progressive grouping might reflect that, while the SDP briefly seemed a plausible alternative to Thatcherism (winning 7.8 million votes at the 1983 election), the middle-class revolution was squeezed externally by two-party domination and internally by disputes over leadership and direction.

But, for all the parallel relevance, the success of Limehouse ultimately depends on the convincing re-creation of an era and its people. Enjoyable period details include the luxury macaroni cheese to a recipe by Delia Smith that Debbie Owen, Delia’s literary agent, chops and fries on stage to fuel her husband’s discussions with his three wary comrades. Waters also skilfully uses the mechanics of a pre-digital world – having to go out for newspapers, going upstairs to answer a phone – to get one character out of the way to allow others to talk about them.

As a good playwright should, Waters votes for each character in turn. Owen, though teased for vanity and temper, is allowed a long speech that honours his status as one of the most memorable orators in modern British politics. Tom Goodman-Hill samples Owen’s confident baritone without going the whole Rory Bremner.

Playing Jenkins, a man celebrated for both a speech defect and rococo cadences, Roger Allam has no choice but to deliver the voice perfectly, which he does. Waters carefully gives the character an early riff about the “crepuscular greyness” of Brussels, allowing Allam to establish the w-sounds and extravagant adjectives. Actor and playwright also challenge the assumption that for Jenkins both to love fine wine and to advocate social justice was inevitably a contradiction.

Debra Gillett refreshingly avoids the scattiness that caricaturists attribute to Williams, stressing instead her large brain and deep soul, in a portrayal that increases the sense of shame that the Tories should lead Labour 2-0 in the score of female prime ministers. As Rodgers (in Beatles terms, the Ringo of the confab four), Paul Chahidi touchingly suggests a politician who knows that he will always be a bag-man but still agonises over whose luggage to carry.

Unfolding over 100 minutes, Polly Findlay’s production has a lovely rhythm, staging the delayed entrances of Jenkins and Williams for maximum impact. Biodramas about the living or recently dead can be hobbled by a need to negotiate objections of tact or fact. Politicians, however, often purchase even the rudest cartoons of themselves for the loo wall, and the real Owen, Williams and Rodgers laughed warmly during, and strongly applauded after, the first night.

At an impromptu press conference afterwards, a genial and generous Owen astutely observed that what at the time was “a very happy day in our house” has been dramatised as tragicomedy. But, regardless of whether Marx was right about history repeating itself the second time as farce, the possibility that farce is being repeated in Labour Party history has encouraged a compelling play that is sublimely enjoyable but also deeply serious – on the question of when loyalty to party can become disloyalty to political responsibility.

“Limehouse” runs until 15 April

Mark Lawson is a journalist and broadcaster, best known for presenting Front Row on Radio 4 for 16 years. He writes a weekly column in the critics section of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution