“Posh ladies came in to dust the bust of Lenin in the basement.” Photo: Getty
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When I worked at Marxism Today, my desire to earn a living proved to be somewhat déclassé

The left has a strange relationship with its workers. Love, not money, counts.

I had never had a job interview like it – rather, two interviews of two hours each for working part-time on a small magazine. There were four of them and just one of me and by the end of the first interview I was talking nonsense about post-structuralism, as they hadn’t even given me a cup of tea.

The magazine was Marxism Today, which never considered itself small. I wanted to work there as it was the locus of ideas that interested me. Its influence was huge not because it represented the left but because the right thought that it did.

The sticking point when it came to giving me a job seemed to be that I wasn’t in the Communist Party. “We are worried about your commitment to the project,” the interviewers said sternly. It was the first time I’d heard that word – “project” – used in this way, though it was taken up later by the ex-Communist Party people who moved straight into Tony Blair’s No 10.

“What project is that, then?” I asked. They seemed nervous.

“Revolution,” someone said, quietly.

“Oh, that. Yeah! I’m really into that.”

My not being in the party had repercussions, such as what happened when the phones were cut off after the managing editor forgot to pay the bill. Everyone was sent home and they weren’t paid, as they were “in the party” – but I was. My attitude to being paid was problematic. It was seen
as a betrayal.

Elderly trade unionists grumpily manned the reception. Posh ladies came in to dust the bust of Lenin in the basement. The actual workings of the party remained mysterious. Mostly, people shouted at me. I’d phone up someone to write a piece and they would start yelling at me about Czechoslovakia.

“Tankies?” said everyone, nodding.

We were – and I write “we” loosely – Eurocommunists. This, to me, was embodied by a stylish Italian woman who floated around smoking vigorously and who would talk about hegemony with a cashmere cardigan perched just so on her shoulders.

We never paid writers. You did it for the glory. I persuaded the likes of Angela Carter, David Hockney, Linford Christie and even Jean Baudrillard to give their time for free. When someone ordered thousands of pounds’ worth of the wrong paper for a print run, I imagined that this would close it all down – but no. Apparently lots of people had left money to the party in their wills.

My preoccupation with earning a living was somewhat déclassé. The left has a strange relationship with its workers. Love, not money, counts. They paid me £50 a week and were indeed right about my commitment to the project. Bizarrely, my personal project involved a living wage. Years later the story about Moscow gold financing the party came out. If only I had some of it!

Suzanne Moore is a writer for the Guardian and the New Statesman. She writes the weekly “Telling Tales” column in the NS.

This article first appeared in the 22 July 2015 issue of the New Statesman, How Labour went mad for Jeremy Corbyn

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This week, a top tip to save on washing powder (just don’t stand too near the window)

I write this, at 3.04pm on a sticky Thursday afternoon, in the state in which Adam, before his shame, strolled in the Garden of Eden.

Well, in the end I didn’t have to go to Ikea (see last week’s column). I got out of it on the grounds that I was obviously on the verge of a tantrum, always distressing to witness in a man in his early-to-mid-fifties, and because I am going to Switzerland.

“Why Switzerland?” I hear you ask. For the usual reason: because someone is paying for me. I don’t think I’m going to be earning any money there, but at least I’ll be getting a flight to Zurich and a scenic train ride to Bellinzona, which I learn is virtually in Italy, and has three castles that, according to one website, are considered to be “amongst the finest examples of medieval fortification in Switzerland”.

I’m not sure what I’m meant to be doing there. It’s all about a literary festival generally devoted to literature in translation, and specifically this year to London-based writers. The organiser, who rejoices in the first name of Nausikaa, says that all I have to do is “attend a short meeting . . . and be part of the festival”. Does this mean I can go off on a stroll around an Alp and when someone asks me what I’m doing, I can say “Oh, I’m part of the festival”? Or do I have to stay within the fortifications, wearing a lanyard or something?

It’s all rather worrying, if I think about it too hard, but then I can plausibly claim to be from London and, moreover, it’ll give me a couple of days in which to shake off my creditors, who are making the city a bit hot for me at the moment.

And gosh, as I write, the city is hot. When I worked at British Telecom in the late Eighties, there was a rudimentary interoffice communication system on which people could relay one-line messages from their own computer terminal to another’s, or everyone else’s at once. (This was cutting-edge tech at the time.) The snag with this – or the opportunity, if you will – was that if you were not at your desk and someone mischievous, such as Gideon from Accounts (he didn’t work in Accounts; I’m protecting his true identity), walked past he would pause briefly to type in the message “I’m naked” on your machine and fire it off to everyone in the building.

For some reason, the news that either Geoff, the senior team leader, or Helen, the unloved HR manager, was working in the nude – even if we knew, deep down, that they weren’t, and that this was another one of Gideon’s jeux d’esprit – never failed to break the monotony.

It always amused us, though we were once treated to a terrifying mise en abîme moment when a message, again pertaining to personal nudity, came from Gideon’s very own terminal, and, for one awful moment, for it was a very warm day, about 200 white-collar employees of BT’s Ebury Bridge Road direct marketing division suddenly entertained the appalling possibility, and the vision it summoned, that Gideon had indeed removed every stitch of his clothing, and fired off his status quo update while genuinely in the nip. He was, after all, entirely capable of it. (We still meet up from time to time, we BT stalwarts, and Gideon is largely unchanged, except that he’s now a history lecturer.)

I digress in this fashion in order to build up to the declaration – whose veracity you can judge for yourselves – that as I write this, at 3.04pm on a sticky Thursday afternoon, I, too, am in the state in which Adam, before his shame, strolled in the Garden of Eden.

There are practical reasons for this. For one thing, it is punishingly hot, and I am beginning, even after a morning shower, to smell like a tin of oxtail soup (to borrow an unforgettable phrase first coined by Julie Burchill). I am also anxious not to transfer any of this odour to any of my clothes, for I will be needing them in Switzerland, and I am running low on washing powder, as well as money to buy more washing powder.

For another thing, I am fairly sure that I am alone in the Hovel. I am not certain. To be certain, I would have to call out my housemate’s name, and that would only be the beginning of our problems. “Yes, I’m here,” she would reply from her room. “Why?” “Um . . .” You see?

So here I lie on my bed, laptop in lap, every window as wide open as can be, and looking for all the world like a hog roast with glasses.

If I step too near the window I could get arrested. At least they don’t mind that kind of thing in Switzerland: they strip off at the drop of a hat. Oh no, wait, that’s Germany.

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times