[Marxism] More about Clancy Sigal

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Tue May 3 18:38:40 MDT 2005


I read "Going Away" back in the early 1970s and the books sticks with me. 
It is basically a 'roman a clef' about a leftist writer preparing to leave 
for Europe to get away from the witch-hunt. The main character, who is 
based on Sigal himself, travels around the USA dropping in on CP'ers who 
are being torn apart by the Khruschchev revelations, the witch-hunt and 
dashed hopes for socialism. Most of the book consists of conversations over 
beer or coffee between long-time leftists. It captures the disillusionment 
of the radical movement in the 1950s but points forward to deeper changes 
taking place in American society, especially those associated with the beat 
generation. It is not too much of a stretch to group "Going Away" with "On 
the Road" since they are both basically "road novels". I can't recommend 
this novel highly enough.

After Sigal made it over to England, he started a relationship with Doris 
Lessing, which turned sour. Lessing herself had a CP background and decided 
to write her own version of "Going Away" that was called "Golden Notebook." 
It is basically an attempt to make sense of the CP experience. But it is 
also a prototype of feminist literature that was linked with Simone Du 
Beauvoir's "Second Sex." The main character of this novel was based on 
Lessing and her lover was obviously Clancy Sigal, who doesn't come across 
too good. There is a lot of feminist resentment directed toward him, but I 
have a feeling that any man would have been described in the same terms.

Here's an interesting article by Sigal that was written just before his 
return to the USA.

The Guardian (London)
June 17, 1989

Goodbye Little England: Clancy Sigal, the Chicago corner boy who fell foul 
of the McCarthyites in Hollywood and came to the mining kingdom of South 
Yorkshire to learn the writing trade, explains why his English interlude of 
30 years is over

By CLANCY SIGAL

What did Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud have in common? They both slept with 
their housekeepers. It's taken me 30 years to figure this out. Suddenly, 
the two mental giants who have ruled my life come into sharper focus. It's 
exhilarating, and also shattering, for your gods to fail. At last, it's 
time to grow up.

I did it all here, in Britain. And now it's time to go. Back to the United 
States where I'm a gastarbeiter, a 'guest worker' in my own country. Going 
where the money is, and where a jobbing writer like me can be a professor 
of journalism without blushing.

It's not only the gravy. A sense of timing maybe. Or the intolerable London 
rents, abysmal telephones, unpredictable weather, Northern Line blues, 
Nigel Lawson, Or an old Longshore lament that's being ringing in my ears 
recently:

It's time to go, I heard them say I heard them say, It's time to go .. for 
now.

It was only an interlude, I told myself. A weekend to visit the Tower of 
London and Buckingham Palace, a few days extra to see Stratford-on-Avon and 
the Lake District. Then back to Hollywood for a while where J. Edgar 
Hoover's FBI waited patiently for me to break.

'You'll co-operate,' they'd predicted. 'They all do .. in the end.' 
'Co-operation' meant informing on my friends, ex-Communist Party comrades, 
and co-workers. In the McCarthyite 1950s 'everybody' submitted who wanted, 
as I did, to make it in the movie business.

I didn't trust myself not to be a stool-pigeon. A hot blow-torch to my 
naked feet I might have heroically withstood. But not the promise that I 
could keep my name on the office door, my two secretaries and Christmas 
bonus I'd left behind on Sunset Strip. How many Chicago kids get to call 
Humphrey Bogart and Ava Gardener by their first names?

My main English interlude lasted 30 years. And I never did see the Tower. 
But almost everything else in Britain took - as is the habit of visiting 
Americans, from Mark Twain and TS Eliot to the Eighth Air Force GIs - my 
name. If Kilroy, the mythical second world war trooper, could scrawl 
himself on walls and fences all over blitzed Britain, so could I. You had 
given us Tom Paine, the 1776 revolutionary war's best-selling pamphleteer. 
I'd repay the compliment almost 200 years later.

After all, I thought, your 1945 post-war Pounds Pounds revolutionPounds 
Pounds needed, as ours had, a bit of foreign enthusiasm. And maybe I, like 
Tom, could become a literary celebrity abroad. Only one small detail needed 
working out: I had to learn the writing trade.

It couldn't be that hard. The first writers I met here were astonishingly 
dull people. Doris Lessing, Alan Sillitoe, John Wain, Angus Wilson, Mervyn 
Jones, John Osborne, VS Pritchett, Colin MacInnes, Bernard Kops, Robert 
Bolt, Laurie Lee, seemed incredibly grey and downbeat compared to 
larger-than-life types I admired like Jack Kerouac and Norman Mailer. You 
had to be 'interesting' to write good prose, surely.

That was my second lesson. Ordinary people wrote exciting work; exciting 
people somehow forgot to put it in their writing. It seemed unfair. I was a 
hell of a lot more 'interesting' than the writers I met, but they had the 
trick while I was still knocking about the country getting into fights, 
having affairs, combatively squaring off against writers who seemed deeply 
bored by my posturing. Damm their eyes, I'd show 'em.

It was also a clash of literary traditions. Yours was Shakespeare, 
Fielding, Trollope, Dickens, etc. Mine was Superman, Tarzan, the Lone 
Ranger, Gene Kelly, and John Wayne. When a stranger strolls into town, 
pardner, he either guns down his rivals or dances off with Cyd Charisse.

Once, I bulldozed my way into tea with EM Forster at King's College, 
Cambridge. He politely listened to my complaints about London literary 
life, then quietly observed: 'Yes, I quite see your point. I'm afraid we're 
not in the slightest like Paris or Rome or New York. Perhaps you should gry 
one of these places next. Another biscuit?'

But I'd already tried New York and Paris, and I couldn't speak Italian. So 
I launched my writing life in Thurcroft, outside Rotherham by way of 
Sheffield, South Yorkshire.

I was lucky enough to meet a miner named Len Doherty, also a writer, who 
understood my hunger because he too was famished for escape. We collaboraed 
on my first book, Weekend in Dinlock, although only my name appeared on it. 
I wrote it but he opened his village, his pit, and himself to me. When I 
showed him my final manuscript, he shoved it back across the pub table and 
said: 'It'll make thy reputation, lad. But it won't solve thy problems. God 
Almighty couldn't help the likes of us.'

'Us' was a Chicago corner boy and a Yorkshire handgetter in temporary 
alliance against 'Them': not only the English upper class which was our 
formal enemy, but also a whole world of cosmopolitan sophisticates, centred 
in London, who drove us mad with their double signals of praise and 
patronisation.

Angry, trapped (we felt) in a kind of claustrophobic clumsiness, steeped in 
the different prides of our respective working classes - he Geordie, me 
Russian-Jew - we often took it out on each other. We had one or two 
terrible fist fights in the dark lanes of Thurcroft after pub closing. One 
night, almost laughing with exhaustion, he collapsed against me in the 
Miners' Club. 'What do that want of us, man? If tha stay much longer, one 
or both of us'll end up in hospital. Go home, Yank.'

But I didn't, or couldn't, go 'home'.

I tried going back to the States. But so much had happened there, so few of 
my gloomy predictions were proving true, that I slunk back to England with 
a relieved sense that her, thank God, things stayed the same or evolved at 
a human pace. But then the Sixties happened. A kind of fever - Harold 
Wilson called it the 'white heat of technological revolution' - gripped the 
country. I first sensed it when many of the North-east coalfields shut.

One day, it seemed, I was drinking in some of the livelist working men's 
clubs in Britain; the next, nothing but ghost towns. A Labour government 
had persuaded a whole region to die, with hardly a peep from the union or 
the miners who trusted 'their' party.

The coalfields around Newcastle and Durham, whole neighbourhoods I'd known 
in London, Manchester, Liverpool, Bradford, Leeds, Sheffield, and 
Birmingham simply 'were disappeared' as if they were Latin American 
dissidents. A motorway rammed parts of the Notting Hill where I lived, into 
the dust. Ancient city centres were replaced by shopping precincts which 
gave carbuncles a bad name.

And it was all so bloody inefficient.

In the Sixties, I changed from being John Reed, the US radical journalist, 
to Colonel Blimp. Because that's when I began to realise how important the 
best of the old was to me, and how much I despised the unworkable new. 
Worst of all for a second-generation socialist, it dawned on me how much 
party labels were a nonsense when it came to real life. Once again I 
plunged into a political wilderness from which I've yet to emerge.

Today, I remain a Labour activist in roughly the same way as I'm a Jew. I 
hardly think about my Jewishness except around anti-Semites. And Margaret 
Thatcher has remade me into a fundamentalist socialist because Labour is 
the most conservative party around.

It's been a long, long road from Sunset Boulevard to Primrose Hill NW1. Yet 
now that I'm packing my bags for yet another attempt to be an American. I'm 
sometimes not sure which country I'm in. A loony type of 'Americanisation' 
- American greed without Yankee zip, 'style' without stylishness, money 
without a guilty conscience - is taking hold.

The aspidistra is no longer flying: it's going by Concorde.

In a way, I love it. 'Thatcherism' - really Wilson/Callaghanism with a blue 
rinse - has exploded long-unused energies in me. I'm one of the few 
socialist I know who had an excellent business-school training and survived 
in a cut-throat commercial game. I actually enjoy corporate life .. but not 
when it radicalises British to an extent that there doesn't seem to be a 
significant difference between what I left in America and came here for.

Don't mistake me. I'm not one of those American tourists who wearisomely 
insist that Britain is more 'civilised' than the US. I've met more physical 
violence here - from friends, strangers, and even police - than in America. 
Right from the start, when I got off the boat at Southampton during an 
unofficial TGWU dockers' strike - 'Carry yer own, Mate. Wotcha think, we're 
yer coolies?' - to my first demo in Trafalgar Square and a head-kicking 
from a winkle-pickered Mosleyite, I knew that 'Enry Cooper more than Winnie 
the Pooh was likely to be a household god. This is an unarmed, not a 
non-violent, country.

So what kept me here? During my first crisis winter of no central heating 
and caff bangers that should have been left buried at Stonehenge, I fell in 
love with the thing we most despise today: seediness, the war-wounded 
shabbiness, the unhurried, undramatic sense of getting-on-with-it despite. 
Britain in the late 1950s looked pretty worn down but was surrpisingly 
efficient. Work got done, things got mended, with an unselfconscious 
dispatch which now seems quaint.

I didn't look 'modern'. God knows I hated the inconveniences, but buses and 
trains moved, 999 calls were answered, shopkeepers fumbled and mumbled in 
their musty backrooms but found the item you wanted. I'm no antiquarian. I 
don't like England because it's an historical museum. Dirt and squalor 
masquerading as 'tradition' repel me. But I'm hopelessly addicted to things 
that work; and Britain's streets once were swept.

I value Little England. For some, this means gin and tonic on the veranda 
at sunset, Lord Kitchener's accusing finger, and Liverpool FC supporters 
having a murderous go at the wogs at Heysel. It's that, all right. But 
small-country patriotism doesn't have to be a right-wing monopoly. It can 
be provincial, even insular, suspicious of outsiders and belligerent 
towards intellectuals like me.

But there's something else to it. Call it resistance, or stroppiness, or 
contrary: what makes life here positive, regenerative, alive.

I wish I could say it was simple love of country, except that is pretty 
complicated nowadays. I happen to feel idiotically patriotic about both the 
US and Britain. Remembrance Sunday has become as important to me as my own 
Memorial Day.

The latter also includes the casualties of class. Not just the martyrs of 
Peterloo, Tolpuddle and the 1926 General Strike. The 'class system' which 
has evolved here is dreadfully hurtful to working and middle-class 
families. It means that working-class people often half-destroy themselves 
making the Daley Thompson leap from Class 4 and 5 to 3 and beyond. And the 
middle classes get penned up in a psychic ghetto at once snobbish and 
guilt-ridden. Maybe that's changing now. The Norman Tebbits are supposed to 
be sweeping away the Lord Carringtons in a Thatcherite 'revolution of the 
talents'. People more like myself are in control. I'm not sure I like it.

Britain's on the move again, in one of those great modernising convulsions 
like the Land Enclosures and the Victorian railway boom. It's quite 
exciting if you don't get knocked down by the traffic.

But none of us knows any more what Britain is or will be. Whether we like 
it or not, 'she' has given us a clear historical choice, as De Gaulle onece 
did in France. Each of us has to work out all over again the kind of people 
we are and what is important to us. Something's definitely in the air when 
a polo-playing prince makes bolder statements than my old New Left used to.

I yearn for a Britain now fading away like old fax paper. It wasn't 'one 
nation'. What country ever is? Yet I always wanted it to be. Maybe it comes 
from seeing Mrs Miniver and In Which We Serve in my soft-minded teens: 
movie fantasies of a whole, healthy people.

Like most ex-working-class socialists I know, I try to defend the class I'm 
from rather than the one I'm in. Americans call characters like me a 
'tweenie', a demographic half-caste. Privately I'm proud of inching up from 
Lucozade to Perrier, but troubled that I couldn't take everyone else with me.

'Rise with, not from, your class,' my mother used to say. She believed we 
all deserved champagne. She would not have been sympathetic to my confused 
longing to stick with my own; or how her relaxed attitude to class - she 
took 'em as she found 'em - has for me turned to something harder and more 
bitter her. It's almost a relief to return to 'classless' America where 
money talks without worrying about dropping its aitches.

Class distinctions never bothered my mother, a machine-minder. I think she 
would have understood why I keep going back to certain grimy, 
breathtakingly lovely landscapes in the North. I'm not into industrial 
archaeology.

Whole regions of my life are now either wastelands or sub-bohemias for bad 
poets and displaced earth mothers running Little Shops of Horrors called 
boutiques. Step by step, one part of Britain grows at the expense of 
another; provincialism at its best is replaced by false urbanity; people 
start to have second lives like second homes by wiping out a common 
heritage. I saw it happen in America once.

Nostalgia, like literacy, has its uses. Sometimes at the US Air Force 
cemetery in Cambridge I see combat-crew veterans trying to explain to 
puzzled wives and bored kids what a dogfight was like. It becomes important 
to recall Mike and Charlie and Vic lying under white crosses of Stars of 
David in the Fenland snow. They're the part of us we have to remember to 
stay alive as human beings.

My ghosts are more earthbound. The Barnsley area and Merthyr miners, 
Blackburn mill hands, Coventry car workers, and CIU clubmen - ostensibly 
racist and anti-foreign - who let me in with an open-heartedness I failed 
to find in London. Here and ther, in a mining village or (former) textile 
town, I'm still Kilroy among the survivors. Well, almost.

'No, lad, can't say I do remember you,' a South Yorkshire retired 
checkweighman told me in a pub that had once been my second home. 'Or that 
Doherty fellow. Was you that Yank who was always asking questions and 
couldn't hold your beer? Heard you died .. or went to America. Same thing, 
if you ask me.'

This 'other' Britain hardly exists any more. Its trench warfare mentality 
and naked malesness are unfashionable today. The hard shoulders are being 
removed from the road to Wigan Pier.

My first serious woman friend here once spat: 'Stop romanticising us, 
especially the workers. They're like any of us: they'd move up in a moment 
if they thought they could.' It sounds briskly unsentimental but isn't 
always true. Little Englandism sometimes also involves class loyalty.

My own has been burned and hammered away: by crazy strikes, embarrassment 
at the difference in outlooks, relief and I don't have to live that way any 
more. All that remains is a dim, dumb, almost soldierly sense that, back 
there somewhere, I left behind some remarkable people. An a culture of 
poverty that bred strength as well as misery, broad sympathies inseparable 
from mindless cruelties; and a sophistication about gut realities 
completely alien to my present NW1 neighbours.

Don't tell me about the ugly side. I covered the trial of the Moor 
murderers, Brady and Hindley. They're as authentic to the northern working 
class as Coronation Street or Richard Hoggart. And so is Bradford's Jack 
the Ripper. I know what mean bastards the proles can be. One foggy night in 
Islington my No. 38 bus ran over a drunk, breaking his leg. A decent 
middle-class woman spread her expensive-looking coat over the shivering man 
in the street. 'Wouldn't do that if I was you, miss,' advised the bus 
driver enjoying a fag while waiting for someone else to ring 999 for an 
ambulance. 'He might piss on it.'

No English middle-class person would have dealth with a victim as my No. 38 
bus driver did. Give them the right kind of crisis - Dunkirk, a motor 
accident, an air crash - and they're magnificient.

Once I recovered from a spinal operation by taking a Swan Hellenic cruise 
through the Aegean. My fellow passengers -Eton/Rodean-bred or nearly so - 
were super to me. But they were the same people who coldly, cruelly snubbed 
another passenger who had the wrong accent and drank too much. Funny, that. 
'Joe' was an ex-RAF Spitfire pilot. He was more tolerant of the snobs than I.

'Ease up, lad,' Joe told me one boozy night under a Corinth moon. 'I 
understood that lot. They want me to be like one of the Few. Instead, I 
behave like all of the Many.' He roared with vodka-and-tonic laughter. 'If 
I was a railwayman like my Dad they'd forgive me, you see.'

Joe wasn't my idea of a proper Battle of Britain hero. They wore white
scarves and said 'Tallyho!' as they flew into the Messerschmitt-darkened
sun. Somehow, I confused Richard Hilary, burning alive in his Spitfire, with
my idol Roger Bannister who broke the four-minute mile (I was a mere 440
runner), with Richard Hannay in  The Thirty-nine Steps: have toffs, on my
side. I'm probably as much a product of John Buchan and Gainsborough
Studios as Marx and Freud. My saints may be proletarian, but my heroes
certainly are bourgeois.


And now I'm going back to a country where men are called Sparky, Smoky, and 
Spunky;

Where not a soul will know what I mean by Clause 4, devolution, Arthur 
Scargill, and elevenses; Where I'll have to get to know somebody personally 
without benefit of accent;

Where I'll have to be polite to everybody not because 'it's done' but out 
of fear that they'll shoot me over a parking space;

Where a Bill of Rights guarantees I'll never again have one of my books banned;

Where blacks and browns fight for equality but not for a simple recognition 
of their existence;

Where I'm billed (as I was) Dollars 3,000 for fainting in the street;

Where California dentists look into my mouth and mutter, 'Yeah, I heard all 
about your socialised medicine, it'll cost you a bomb';

Where a 25-cent stamp is enough to unlock my FBI file;

Where football players get the Nobel Prize for ordinary tackles and 
back-slapping compliments are the preferred method of 'interpersonal 
interaction'

Measured detachment is a sign either of insanity or TV punditry, but not of 
friendship;

Friends make dates for breakfast tomorrow, not dinner four months hence;

An unpaid bill is a cause less of concern than of jail;

And where I was born.

The change I tried to escape in America has finally caught up with me, and 
we're inventing a new Britain. Len Doherty killed himself; nobody wants to 
know his name any more, not even in Thurcroft. It's made me feel suddenly 
lonely.

I wonder if Len, too tired to go down the pit again but strangely out of 
place in his new white-collar class, felt any of this. There must be a 
laugh in it somewhere. After all, why live here unless you pick up a trace 
of the famed English sense of humour: essentially a kiss before dying, a 
bemused appreciation of just how bloody hard it is to stay sane on this 
crowded little island?

There's a brilliant rainbow over Chalk Farm as I write this after a sleety 
rain. Cheap symbolism. After all, there will be rainbows in LA or New York, 
or wherever I go. But it won't quite be the same. For 30 years - half my 
life - I've lived on the lower slopes of the Jerusalem we call democratic 
socialism, or welfarism, Labourism, or simply the English sickness. An 
extraordinary experience of misery, ecstacy, broken promises, structural 
decency, and shallow compromises: neither all-out capitalism not 'true' 
socialism.

You're a midway people, halfway between America and Russia, heaven and 
hell. This delicate, often dispiriting balance can be maddening. And I 
really did go crazy here, in love, for fraternity with comrades who nearly 
killed me, and with women who sometimes I wish had. Anyone who calls this 
place 'sane' is nuts.

But no more grumbles. You don't reward the lifeguard who saved you from 
drowning by reminding him that he should have sent you home in a Porsche. I 
don't want to go. But needs must. I'll be back.

After all, would Marx have turned his back on a 'revolution', Thatcherite 
or otherwise; or Freud ignored a country where repression is such an art 
form? But then, they could afford housekeepers.





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