Sunday, May 18, 2008

So long, Clarkey

I haven't seen him for ten years, but I often think of him, and I was thinking of him only the other day, as I was reading Naomi Klein's The Shock Doctrine. I remembered Harry's bitter condemnation of the newly elected Labour Government's 1997 surrender of overall control of the Bank of England. At the time, this passed me by. Now I understand a little better what he meant. It was a huge step in the process of government surrendering control of the economy to capitalism, pure and simple. It was a step not even Thatcher dared take. Yet a Labour government and a Chancellor considered leftish did it, and numpties like me had no idea what it meant.

Harry Clarke has died. He was 85. We met up in Carlise in the early 90s. Both coming from Jarrow, being very left wing, liking a pint, and not caring too much what the world thought of us, we had a lot in common and soon became friends and comrades. Harry was a leading light in the Anti Poll Tax movement in Carlise, and in the Campaign Against Trust Hospitals. His main platform was to be the Pensioners' Rights Campaign.

Harry was a brilliant and resourceful political activist, but he was my best pal and a whole load of fun to be with. Our forty-odd year age difference meant nothing.

He had been a Communist as a young man in Jarrow, and told me he could remember the start of the Jarrow March when he was a little boy. At the outbreak of war, his mother burned all of his political books in panic. He eventually joined the Royal Navy, and saw service in south east Asia as a member of a shore patrol. In his cups, he would sometimes talk about the war in the jungle. He was invalided out with TB, and ordered to South Africa to convalesce. There, outraged at the inherent racism of South African society, he set up an organisation called Servicemen Against the Colour Bar. He recalled adressing a huge rally in Soweto. "Bloody hell, Harry," I said when he told me about it. "Was Nelson Mandela there?" The reply was typical Clarkey. With a straight face he said, "Maybe. But not on the platform with the speakers."

He returned to England and after a period as a salesman, became a probation officer, which he continued to be until his retirement. He left the Communists after the Hungarian uprising, and remained an unaligned socialist thereafter. We would often sit up late into the night arguing politics, and despite what some of his CP enemies said, I can state categorically that he was never a Trotskyist. (He found the label Trotskyist-Facist imposted on all the CP members who left the Party after Hungary a huge joke).

We attended an Anti-Poll Tax rally in South Shields once, which Harry addressed. I had my daughter Clare with me, and she was then about eight years old. Harry spoke about the then opposition Labour party's failure to do anything concrete about the Poll Tax, advising us instead that we ought to obey the law. "Obey the law?" Said Harry, incredulously. "Don't they know that in this country we once chopped off the king's head because we didn't like his laws?" Later, worried that she might be getting bored, I asked my daughter if she was ok, and she said she was having a great time, and especially liked the bit about chopping the king's heads off.

I could write a book about Harry. In fact, we lefties in Carlisle often wondered if he was writing a memoire. I would love to think he had, but I doubt it: Harry did things, I asked him about it a couple of times, once he said he didn't have time (which was right: he was a very busy pensioner), but later he was equivocal about it. Whether he has or hasn't, I will remember Harry Clarke as long as I live, as one of the greatest men Jarrow ever produced, and Carlisle adopted. And that's saying something.