What did you say?
Valery Bryusov

“Why do you still look longing at the past / as if it were the dreamland thick with wonders?”

- Valery Bryusov

This conversation between Colin Chambers, Elinor Taylor and Henry Stead took place in Elinor’s office in University of Westminster, just off Oxford Street, London, on 15 November 2016. It is the third podcast from the Conversations on Communism series. There was some heavy construction going on just across the street. The photograph shows Colin on the phone at work for the Morning Star. (If you’re looking for Side A)

HS. Did you have certain members or, not necessarily members of the Party, but people working for the Morning Star, or people within that cultural milieu that you looked up to?

CC. Well, Bob Leeson, who was the books editor. I learned a lot from him. Jack [Lindsay], by being introduced to him through Bob… Because Jack reviewed a lot. If you ever go through the cuttings, you’ll find a lot of Jack Lindsay in the Daily Worker, Morning Star, both reviews and articles about anything from anthropology through to, you know, whatever. He wrote about almost anything. So I continued to use him as a reviewer, which he was happy to do. Both because he wrote very quickly, but also he knew a lot and I thought he was a good guy. He would say the things I wanted him to say: the stance he’d take towards something would be one that I would be sympathetic to. So I tried to avoid people that I knew were going to… like, with the Katyn book [discussed in Side A], you wouldn’t give it to certain people who would say that this was ‘terrible anti-Soviet propaganda’.

ET. Were they paid reviews?

CC. No.

ET. No. Okay.

CC. I got Raymond Williams to review. I mean, all sorts of people did it. It’s amazing. I always am, perhaps I’m not amazed, but people like that who, I mean, I met Raymond Williams at Cambridge and asked him if he’d supervise me, and he said ‘I have so many people’. And he just said ‘look, you know…’ And I went to him and said, ‘I really don’t know what to do, because I find this place horrific. It’s oppressive. I can’t bear it. But I want to, you know, I want to… I feel that as somebody on the left I ought to be, you know, stepping up to the plate’. We didn’t say that in those…

HS. There is actually a lot about your trajectory which is, to be put it bluntly, quite astonishing or baffling as well. You seem to have been senior lecturer at Kingston while you were still doing your PhD?

CC. While I was at the Star, I was books editor but I also then became theatre critic. Because Jack Sutherland, who’d done it before, who’s also a good bloke, you know, but found he was getting… well, he didn’t like a lot of the modern stuff. Jack, because I talked to Jack a lot, knew that I was interested in theatre so he let me do some reviews, liked what I did, he gave up and gave it over to me. So I became a theatre critic. I joined the critic’s circle and I did all that stuff and became active in that. There’s a thing called the International Association of Theatre Critics which is part of all that UN stuff. I was in that and went to conferences abroad as a theatre critics and journalist. Through that I started to read plays for The Royal Shakespeare Company, because by chance I met… I was in the pub next to the old Half Moon Theatre in the East End of London and I by that time had got to know a critic called Michael Coveney so I was just saying hello and next to him was a guy who turned out to be the literary manager of the Royal Shakespeare Company. Michael said, ‘Oh,’ you know, ‘Colin, meet Walter, Walter…’. Walter said ‘Oh, would you be interested in…’, you know. So I said ‘I’ll read some play scripts for you’, you know, for some money. Yeah. Because I got paid… The Morning Star wage was just, you know, nothing. It was like poverty wages.

HS. So you were reading these plays to, say, you know…

CC. Whether they should be done or not. You get a play and you write a critique. You give it back to the literary manager who then reads it. He then writes back to the writer saying ‘No thanks, we don’t like it’, whatever. Through Walter I got to know a director called Howard Davis who’s just died. And Howard was about to open the Warehouse which was the small theatre the RSC had for new plays, which is now called the Donmar. I got involved in that. I wrote stuff… They put out their own writers’… not newsletter but a sort of self-published… I don’t know what would you call it really, things about playwrights and stuff that went with the show. So if you had a new play like Willy Russell, Educating Rita, I wrote a little thing about Willy Russell and Educating Rita. So I was getting into that world. And then Walter wanted to be a director so he… Trevor Nunn ran a theatre company, said ‘You better come and work with me on a play, on a production, so I can see if you’re any good at it’. So when Walter was away doing that, Howard and he asked me to do Walter’s job which was coinciding with the demise of the Morning Star. I did that for six months and then they wanted me to do it for another six months because Trevor Nunn had told Walter that he wasn’t going to be a director so Walter left in a huff. Sorry, so there’s a gap. So I do that. Do you remember Time Out?

ET. Yeah, yeah.

CC. And City Limits?

ET. Sure, yeah.

CC. City Limits and Time Out were on strike. City Limits was about to break the strike, so Time Out wanted to come back on the street, so they asked me if I’d be the theatre editor of Time Out. I didn’t really want to do that because all my friends were in City Limits. But on the other hand it was a job and I’m going to be paid rather well. So I went to Trevor Nunn and said, ‘I’ve been offered this job. I’d rather stay with the Royal Shakespeare Company but not on this, I can’t do six months [fixed-term contracts]… If you want to make me literary manager of the company then I won’t do the Time Out job.’ So, next day, Trevor said ‘Okay, you’re going to be literary manager of the Royal Shakespeare Company’. So, my writing has always combined an interest in the cultural and the political, if that makes… So, although it might not always be obvious, the book on Unity [Theatre] is, [1]  I suppose, an obvious one because it’s left-wing theatre. But I did a book about Buzz Goodbody and the Royal Shakespeare Company and she was the director of the RSC who was in the Communist Party. And I knew Buzz very well. And she killed herself. So I did a book about her before the whole thing about women directors, so that was important for me. I did a book about the RSC because I thought as a cultural institution that’s a politically important thing to analyse. A book about playwrights… A book coming at it from a political perspective, if you like. And I’ve done other stuff, well, the one on Isadora Duncan, Charlie Chaplin, Paul Robeson,[2] pretty obviously politics is at the centre of that and the cultural commitment… And then the book on Black and Asian theatre, which, you know, is a political project for me because those are buried histories.[3]

HS. What is the relationship between Pan-Africanism and Communism?

CC. Tricky.

HS. Big question.

CC. If you go slightly back, because London or Britain, let’s say, because it was the centre of empire, you’ve also got it being the centre of the anti-slavery movement, because it was pretty hard in America… I mean, people tended to want to come over to Britain, and a lot of escaped slaves did, and the real force came from Britain. And Britain passed the Acts before anybody else, abolishing slavery. So, you’ve already got a, if you like, a cultural swell around anti-slavery that then moves into the anti-colonial struggle. And, again because it’s the centre of empire, and this was after the mid-part of the nineteenth century even more so, because at that point Victoria actually becomes empress of India and all that stuff.

So, you get this extraordinary concentration of people in Britain, particularly in London. And, the Pan-African movement, which interestingly was not just black African but involved, you know, it linked up with or fractured off from, or they fractured off from later, the fight for Indian self-rule. But they were, certainly at the turn of the nineteenth into the twentieth century doing a lot of the things together. And culture was an important part of their struggle. Cultural activity… if you look at the Pan-African congresses that were held in London in the early 1900s, they always have a cultural element and it’s partly the Shylock, you know, ‘I’m a human being like you are’, and that’s the sort of… a lot of it’s within European notions of culture but they’re saying ‘we can do that’, you know, ‘we are as valid as you are’.
The relationship to communism changed through the twentieth century because of the Soviet Union. So before you had any country that had a communist party, it was a more sort of ideological thing. You’d still find both within the fight within Indian independence as well as more specifically African independence, communists playing quite a leading role in those movements. But you then get sort of the fractures that you get in the International Communist Movement. Certainly with, I suppose the first major one would be with Trotsky. And when you get, for example, the invasion of Abyssinia by the Italians and the response to that, a lot of the Pan-Africanists thought that the Soviet Union didn’t support their struggle and that pushed them more towards a Trotskyist position. Then, you know, the Spanish Civil War, a lot of people found, you know, they didn’t like the role that Stalin played in that, the Soviet-Nazi pact. So it sort of fractures out but it’s quite complicated because there’s certainly, up until, certainly up until the Second World War, you can’t really look at one without the other.

HS. That’s fascinating. I’ve been puzzling for a few years, because I’ve read about how CLR James was a Trotskyite…

CC. Yeah. Mainly around Abyssinia, you see. He set up the main defence group over Abyssinia and he and [Paul] Robeson had to be, they were in London in the same period, and were both being radicalised in England at the same time. And then they went different ways after Abyssinia. But you’ve got George Padmore there as well, Kenyatta, Niru. Extraordinary concentration of people. Robeson sticks with the Soviet Union even though, privately, he knows what’s going on. But he takes the view that you need a socialist state and okay, you know, ‘we must make it better’ and all that stuff. But don’t attack it. And there are some people that believe his mental deterioration in the fifties is to do with him not being able to reconcile that contradiction. Because he had a Jewish friend and he was a great supporter of Jewish culture and he knew Jews who were persecuted by and killed by Stalin, under Stalin’s orders, not by Stalin. And so he knew what was happening. But he always stuck publically with… Whereas, you know, CLR James was a self-proclaimed Trotskyist.

So underlying all my work is the idea that you can be politically engaged and creative and they’re not… And it’s not that you then, as it were, somehow follow some puppet-like — that your creativity is somehow being directed — but political and cultural engagement are not mutually exclusive or detrimental. And that’s really why I wrote the book Here We Stand, which is the one on Robeson, Isadora Duncan and Charlie Chaplin, to say you can be culturally active and politically active and it’s not necessarily, you can’t just dismiss it all as propaganda if you’re being political. And, I suppose that was what I was trying to explore, which I haven’t done properly, you know, in a specific sense, I haven’t actually written that book but I…

HS. You haven’t written it yet [CC. laughs], but this is the project that you are working on with John Berger, and…

CC. Was working on… this was back in the 1970s.

HS. O okay.

CC. Because I was working with John on… Migration was, we thought, sort of a defining feature of capitalism. Which of course subsequently — because of globalisation and now Brexit and Trump — has absolutely proved to be the case. And I was at the Star and working with people in the hotel industry in London on articles about migrant workers. And the workforce and then also it was the time of the April Revolution in 1974 in Portugal. One of the people I knew was Portuguese and I stayed with her family and covered the Portuguese revolution for the Star. And so were doing that. And John was working on a book which became… I think it’s called A Seventh Man. I knew him through Ways of Seeing so it was after Ways of Seeing but not through much else. At that point he was not the figure he became and he hadn’t written G and all those other… And now he’s a venerable… ninety years old. I did a play that he and Nella Bielski wrote when I was at the RSC, so I kept in touch over the years.[4] But I was asking John’s advice, because I wanted to do this book about lots of case studies on people who espoused communist ideas or left-wing ideas that could broadly be put under the communist umbrella. They didn’t have to be Party members. And they were all culturally significant and I wanted to use the caste studies to try and explore this, what to me when I was that age, was this myth that if you were a communist you shot poets and you put them in prison. Obviously Stalin did do that but that’s not what communism is about.

So I was starting to work out a series of people and Jack Lindsay was going to be one of the people that I was going to use but I didn’t ever get beyond… Because of work. and then I ended up doing the Unity book rather than that book. And the book about Buzz Goodbody which was sort of the same thing. Buzz is a communist party member and was a great theatre director so that was sort of making my point, if you like. But by then got away from the original idea of a book.

HS. You mentioned earlier that at school you studied Russian and that you were actually taken by your teacher to Russia. Obviously there’s this whole tradition of communists in, well, actually maybe not necessarily communists, but people, broadly speaking, left-wing people, going to the Soviet Union and being shown the Soviet experiment, and I wonder whether you see that experience of… if that had any impact on…?

CC. It certainly opened me up to wanting to know more about it. It moved beyond just being interested in the writing. Because I was reading Gogol short stories, Solzhenitsyn… I mean, it was the teacher that gave me Solzhenitsyn, В круге первом, when I’d only done a year or something Russian but he, ‘There we are! Read that!’ Although we saw the bad side, the police presence around… We were very obviously – this is 1967 I think? – very obviously, you know, from the West. And you didn’t have that many people from the West then. You were chatting to girls and the police would come over and the girls would look frightened and say ‘Oh we’ve got to go otherwise we’ll be in trouble’.
But I bought wonderful classical records for the equivalence of tuppence or something and Pushkin poems for nothing. And the fact that even though it was not brilliant but people had housing, they had childcare, they had jobs. It wasn’t great but it was, there was a sense in which those basic things were being looked after. They could have been done better I’m sure but that… So I was interested in what was happening. So that led me to… I probably hadn’t read the Bukharin at that point but read the Bukharin when I came back. And I remember giving a talk. My mum was in this local conservative group. It was called The Tuesday Club because they met on a Tuesday. It was for nice ladies in Streatham. And I gave a talk. I’d taken slides and stuff of the trip to the Soviet Union, which actually for them was pretty heavy duty stuff. I mean even the mention of going… I remember the reaction. They were all actually quite dumbstruck that I was saying positive things about it. Okay, you know, it was a pretty limited experience but, you know, certainly I was very interested in Russian culture. But that made me think there must… I’d be more interested finding out. What I’d called the Second World War they called the Great Patriotic War. Why? I didn’t know until I’d been there how many millions of Russians had died and I thought well actually that’s sort of probably, you know, in sort of statistical terms, a bigger sacrifice than ours. And I hadn’t been taught anything at school of their role in the Second World War. I didn’t know any of that.

And my school, which is supposed to be a, quotes, ‘good school’, taught a completely crap history. You didn’t join any bits of history up. You did chunks of it – ‘Henry VIII created the British Navy’, sort of thing – you know, and then you’d leap up to the Corn Laws or something. So, I was in a sense primed for reading Marx and Engels by the poor education I had. Because suddenly I read this stuff that started to make sense. You saw things being linked. ‘Oh, so that comes from… Oh, right. That’s interesting, I didn’t know that.’ ‘My God, did they really do that?’ You know. And I got what would be considered, okay it wasn’t a public school but, you know, a good grammar school education. And it was, in many respects, rubbish. Certainly in Geography and History. Didn’t do any politics. So, yeah, I mean, going to the Soviet Union was fantastic. So we went by train. First we went through Berlin to checkpoint Charlie and all that into East Berlin, into Warsaw. Stayed in Warsaw, then to Moscow, Leningrad. We went to Kiev and got the boat back round the Baltic.

HS. Did you?

CC. Brilliant.

HS. So you took the train in a group of how many students?

CC. I don’t know. Twelve maybe? Not bigger than that.

HS. Okay, wow.

CC. With a teacher who spoke each, changed his language as he went through the borders. he was teaching himself Chinese from Russian.

HS. Okay. Wow.

CC. And he was slightly bonkers but when we had these school elections to get you used to citizenship he stood as a Maoist [laughs] and got two votes or something.

HS. We should have his name up on record shouldn’t we.

CC. Oh, his name was Craddock. We called him Joe. But Joe was because of Stalin. His actual name was Paul Craddock. His lessons were both extraordinary for me because I became, as did my friend, very good at Russian. But he was no good at teaching people who couldn’t keep up. We had an immersive system which in the sixties was quite progressive, so everything was in Russian and you had a tape, you know, with little slides and, I don’t know, a hedgehog or something would say, you know, ‘Good morning’ in Russian or something. And then he stepped the pace up and my friend, he got As at O-level and As at A-level but on route a load of people dropped out because they couldn’t keep up, and they got nothing. And that was the first time I’d sort of become aware that this system actually wasn’t all that good because, okay, you know, I might have come out of it, although I was probably an emotional wreck because it’s not, you know, you’re not a balanced human being… That time, they were all fucked up, I mean, it was an all-boys school of course. It wanted to be a public school but it wasn’t because it was… It had houses and it rode and it did all that stuff, you know. But, you know, I came out of it with a great love of Russian. But a load of people got nothing, well I don’t know if they got nothing but… I didn’t talk to them about it, but they didn’t get their O-levels and didn’t get their A-levels. So, that’s a destructive system.

ET. Do you think that theatre has any place in contemporary cultural politics given the sort of horrible situation globally, following Brexit and the Trump victory?

CC. It’s pretty hard now because… It’s odd because the general level of sort of quality of production has gone up. You find now much broader spectrum of stuff that is, in quotes, ‘well-done’. but an awful lot of it, or most of it is fairly meaningless in any sort of political sense, because it’s part of the entertainment industry.

ET. Yeah. So you think it’s a kind of shift in instutions?

CC. Oh yeah.

ET. Yeah.

CC. You’ve got… I mean the National Theatre, the Royal Shakespeare Company do basically, they package decent… You know, if you’re going to pay, it’s a bloody lot of money to go to the theatre. So you don’t necessarily want to have how awful the world is poked up your nose. I’m not saying that’s the only thing political theatre does. But I find most of it pretty bland really. But, you know, theatre goes up and… like all art forms… What happened in the late sixties, early seventies, when I happened to just come into it when it was very political, may happen again. And you’ve got also, theatre, politics has become more theatrical, in a sense. I mean Trump’s whole shtick is theatrical in a way. You’ve got the, you know, Occupy and all of that using what would have been street theatre tactics in a way which is now pretty commonplace. And also, you look at a marathon and everybody’s dressed up, so it’s sort of doing something else.

ET. And do you feel like that kind of, that restricts the possibility of theatre being political because those techniques have been taken over by other forms?

CC. I just think you’ve got to think about what you want to do, and find out what you think theatre can do. I suspect in the age we’re living in, of new technologies and all that, probably what it’s going to be best at is just exploring what it is to be human and the morality of choices, because it’s the only, well not the only art, but it’s an art form where the person presenting something and the person watching it, they’re in the same room together in real time and they’re talking. I mean, dance does it but you don’t talk in it.

ET. Which is an increasingly rare experience I guess.

CC. Cinema obviously doesn’t do it. You watch things on streaming or whatever. You can be with an orchestra… I mean, I love live music but it’s doing something different. And I think that maybe where it’s got to look at… Because the stuff we were doing when it was street theatre is slightly different, because if that was about making a political point then maybe that will happen as well, you know. It is being done but it’s slightly different now. I don’t know if people sort of sit down and write plays. You get things like the verbatim theatre which is bringing subjective experience. That can be political and often people do come out of that saying ‘Oh my God! Is that really what people are going through?’ The tricky bit there is that it can leave you there but I’m not saying it should be doing, you know, I’m not saying it should have answers to everything. I don’t know if you saw Ken Loach’s film I, Daniel Blake, but a lot of, when I saw it, you could hear people in the audience sort of saying, you know, they didn’t know the system was like that. So that’s doing something. But if you did know it was like that, and I think it’s actually worse – it was slightly, in some ways a romanticised version of the working class within that, because he shows lots of people… I don’t want to attack him – but, you know… But that’s got to be part of something else which I suppose it always has got to be. It will never do it on its own. I think it’s still… I think what you think of as political has changed. Because it used to be much more, you know, we know what politics are. That then went through all the stuff I was talking about. Being a woman was political. Being gay was political. Being black was political. We’ve redefined politics so we redefine what cultural interventions are in politics.

End of Side B

Side A

[1] Chambers, C. (1989) The Story of Unity Theatre (L&W).

[2] Chambers, C. (2006) Here we stand: politics, performers and performance: Paul Robeson, Isadora Duncan and Charlie Chaplin (Nick Hern).

[3] Chambers, C. (2011) Black and Asian theatre in Britain: a history (Routledge).

[4] Berger, J. and Bielski, N. A Question of Geography (1987).