The New Statesman will be 110 years old next year and it struck me, in writing this, that by the time you get to a certain age, it starts to feel like every day is a significant anniversary. Even historical anniversaries begin to become personal ones.
In my case, 2022 marked the 50th anniversary of my last year at school, a year coloured by radical politics and the events that produced them: from the Bloody Sunday killings in Derry, at which I had former school friends present on both sides, to the Angry Brigade conspiracy trial later that year, during which I became closely involved with the father of one of the defendants, for whom we raised money so that he could afford to attend the trial of his son.
In between, there was an induction to trade union militancy. First, the shutting of the Saltley fuel storage depot in February, when a young Arthur Scargill led thousands of striking miners in forcing the police to close the gates. Then, less successfully, my first arrest – for obstruction – on an apprentices’ picket line when I was run over by the boss’s Rolls-Royce. Class war could feel very real, and very personal, back then.
The year 2022 was also the 50th anniversary of my leaving home – or rather, of my home leaving me. I was born and bred in Stoke-on-Trent, the descendant of uncounted generations of potters, pitmen and ironworkers – the industries, almost all now gone, on which the city had been built. My family had moved to St Helens in Merseyside with my father’s job. We were there for less than four years, bookended by two nervous breakdowns for my dad, before he and my mum and my younger sister and brother moved back to Stoke.
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I stayed in the north-west, getting a job in Widnes, and unbeknownst to them spent most of the rest of that year sleeping rough and dependent on the kindness of strangers. Among them was John Laveric, a maverick ex-property developer who’d abandoned modern amenities and taken to growing his hair and beard, riding a carthorse into town and giving his fortune to charity after the death of his wife. He’d become something of a folk hero to the youth of Widnes for buying a hammer and ladder from a hardware store opposite the local tax office and proceeding to smash every window in the building after receiving a tax bill on his charitable donations.
John owned a derelict snooker hall, to which he gave me a key. I shared it with the roof leaks and the rats until Mary Carty, a golden-hearted tenants’ activist and Jehovah’s Witness, and her husband, Tommy, who I only discovered years later was illiterate and never able to read my notes of thanks, moved into a bedroom with their children to make space for me in their council house.
It was another ten years before I put all my housing problems behind me, when I signed a secure tenancy agreement with a housing association. But I’m all too aware that this option is denied to people in the same situation today. While I was pleased to be running the London Marathon for Shelter with my daughter in October this year, I don’t think the younger me would have believed that things would be worse for so many people in the 2020s than they were half a century ago.
One thing that has improved is society’s attitude towards mental ill-health. When my dad was hospitalised, it was at best something to hide. My grandmother, who I loved dearly, told him simply to “pull yourself together”. No one else spoke about it, any more than they did his dad’s (my granddad’s) barbiturate overdose, which the coroner declared to be suicide and which the rest of the family denied could have been anything of the sort. It wasn’t until decades later, by which time everyone who could have discussed it was dead, that I uncovered in our family history a trail of psychiatric committals, self-harm, desertion, adoption, even murder (by and of direct ancestors) that had barely been hinted at, except in whispered asides, knowing glances and sudden silences.
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It meant that when I faced my own mental problems, my first instinct was always denial, quickly followed by concealment. Stricken on one occasion by what I could now readily identify as a panic attack before a Labour conference meeting with Gordon Brown, I found myself running breathlessly into the wind along Blackpool beach, trying to put as much distance as I could between the then shadow chancellor and myself. I never did feel able to explain.
I finally found that neither denial nor concealment worked when I had a full-blown psychotic breakdown a few years ago and the police were called in the early hours to deal with someone who was convinced that the neighbours were tormenting him with hidden cameras and laser guns. If you’ve never been in the state of mind where you can see people stealing a garden bench but nobody else can – well, you may not understand why a calmer existence might appeal more than a life in the thick of politics and journalism.
That, at any rate, is the reason I give myself for having kept my distance from those recent periods of political upheaval made up of, as Lenin supposedly put it, “weeks when decades happen”. It will be 30 years ago this January when I was thrust into the national limelight by John Major’s libel action against me, the late Nyta Mann and this magazine. It was a suit that almost bankrupted the New Statesman and nearly broke me. We both survived – and that, I think, will do.
This article appears in the 07 Dec 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Special