I Couldn’t Paint Golden Angels: Albert Meltzer

Excerpt from 

Back in the Old Routine; The Spanish Resistance; The 374 Monster; Ruling the Waves; Three Minute Celebrity

from the book:

I Couldn’t Paint Golden Angels: Sixty Years of Commonplace Life and Anarchist Agitation

by Albert Meltzer

From India, Mohandas P. T. Acharya was still striving on his own in the whole sub-continent to establish a movement.

I formed a private tenants sector in St. Pancras and we had some minor rent strikes but this fizzled out as people got rehoused. I carried on with some meetings, tried with some flagging interest in various libertarian groups and wrote a few articles. I had not realised that the Freedom Press Group, since it had broken away from the old Anarchist Federation, was degenerating into a privately owned publishing house. Any venture like The Syndicalist only boosted their credibility. Articles in Freedom, however they opposed its policy, did the same.

Suddenly I got a request by Acharya to stage an art exhibition of the works of his companion Magda Nachman, who had just died. She had joined him in Moscow in the early Twenties, when he had been in the Comintern as a fervent young Indian nationalist until he lost his illusions in State Communism. They had moved to Berlin and had shared the problems of exile. She was making a name as an artist, and was featured in Hitler’s famous Exhibition of Decadent Art when they moved to Bombay. Starting again from scratch, she had specialised in Indian subjects. Acharya wrote me despairingly he could not bear to think she would be forgotten and asked me to arrange an exhibition in London.

I knew the art world wouldn’t be impressed by a letter from me in furnished rooms. But simultaneously I was asked to open an office as a front for the Spanish Resistance by Francisco Gomez. He had some connection with the campaign that followed the smashing of the Tallion Group in Spain after Sabater was killed and many arrested, Miguel Garcia among others being sentenced to death (commuted to twenty years as the result of pressure).

On two counts I had, therefore, to open an office. It was then impossible to get a house or flat, at least with the nil resources I had, but business premises posed no problem. I took a couple of office rooms at 374 Grays Inn Road: it is worth commenting on the building, which had played an important part in Dissident London since the early thirties. Over a milk bar almost facing Kings Cross Station there was quite a warren of small rooms all suitable for letting out. It had housed a moneylender on the first floor, but above that had been the offices of a variety of left-wing causes, from the embryonic Unity Theatre to the International Brigade Association, various Indian prisoners associations (all rival), peace groups and breakaway unions. Later there were also the Connolly Association, the Militant Tendency and the Oehlerites, until it finally passed into the hands of Time Out. Some rightist commentators later thought there was some sinister connection between them all. But it was quite fortuitous. It was simply cheap and run-down.

The owners were a railway excess properties trust, headed by Sir Bernard Docker, which enables me to say misleadingly that when I finally became the superior lessee, the famous international socialite of the Sixties, Lady Docker was my landlady.

The lessee who had taken over the lease when the moneylender had ceased business and the building had become vacant was entertaining, plausible and shady. For what it was worth he totally took me and a great many others in, though he never did very well out of it. He had been working for the type of space-selling trade directory in which a small business is persuaded to part with cash for an entry in a trades directory and the seller and publisher get half each. There is no salary or other contract. [The publisher gets half of each sale, even if the salesperson doesn’t make enough sales to cover bus fares, and doesn’t publish until they have enough revenue (some not at all).] The value to the client, who often forgets ever putting in an ‘entry’, is nil.

The publisher can’t lose, but Levene had been a successful salesman, with a technique based on straining people’s politeness till they either threw him out or gave in. The company offered to take him on salary. He felt this a trick as indeed it was. He was earning too much for their liking, and he tried throttling the managing director, which strained his relationship with the firm, and he therefore set up in his own. This is what pushed him into dubious dealing — he had never done so before. He produced dummy copies of directories and papers that never appeared and to cover the rent of the building let out the top floor to a business lady who was somewhat coy as to what her business was.

I told him I wouldn’t stay in the same building once her clients, though respectable enough in their bowler hats and suits, made it quite clear to me what the business was. He persuaded me to come into publication with him when he had got her out. I am afraid I was a sitting duck. I produced a dummy fashion trade magazine, not that I knew anything about fashion. My girl friend Evie did and she persuaded me into the venture. He offered me twice as much as I was earning at Reuters to work for him. I gave up my job accordingly.

We started a trade paper, based on his financial castle in the air. It was built on kite-flying, which is arranging with the bank to clear cheques immediately instead of waiting, and then swopping cheques with someone else who probably had nothing in the bank either but whose cheque would be honoured if another piece of paper could be found to cover it. This way two trade papers actually got off the ground but meanwhile I found that all the money coming in, such as it was, was going to him and only a fraction of my supposed salary going to me. I was being made responsible without realising it for all the gradually mounting debts.

Meanwhile he was letting out various rooms there, including the Movement for Colonial Freedom, many of whose supporters became important figures within independence struggles, much as many of Cores’s old Freedom Group speakers and habitues — George Padmore, Jomo Kenyatta, Krishna Menon — had done before. Some of the more sincere of this wave found themselves sidetracked, like Joseph Murumbi, or imprisoned like many others once national freedom had been achieved. Another was Abdul Rahman Babu, who zealously worked the duplicator. When he returned to Dar-es-Salaam it was as a Minister of State but not for long. He soon found himself in President Nyerere’s prisons.

As there were a number of Spanish emigre supporters of the MCF through Fenner Brockway, its chair, Gomez preserved his cover by claiming to be writing for the trade mags to explain his presence in the building. Levene suddenly discovered of himself — or so he said — that he had been made bankrupt years before and was thus illegally obtaining and living on credit, so he took the opportunity of my saying that I was Gomez’s employer by holding me out to his creditors as owner of the whole enterprise, and finally switched the lease to me.

He did find me an art gallery prepared to stage an exhibition of Magda Nachman’s paintings. It was things like that which made it hard to break off connections with him. Unfortunately, Acharya died suddenly. The Indian authorities blocked the export of Magda’s paintings and stated they had been claimed by Acharya’s legal widow, whom he had married at fifteen by parental arrangement and not seen for fifty odd years, and who thought she had come into unexpected treasure. So they vanished from sight.

 

Retrieved from: http://www.katesharpleylibrary.net/rbp11t on August 31, 2011

You may buy the book at:

I formed a private tenants sector in St. Pancras and we had some minor rent strikes but this fizzled out as people got rehoused. I carried on with some meetings, tried with some flagging interest in various libertarian groups and wrote a few articles. I had not realised that the Freedom Press Group, since it had broken away from the old Anarchist Federation, was degenerating into a privately owned publishing house. Any venture like The Syndicalist only boosted their credibility. Articles in Freedom, however they opposed its policy, did the same.Suddenly I got a request by Acharya to stage an art exhibition of the works of his companion Magda Nachman, who had just died. She had joined him in Moscow in the early Twenties, when he had been in the Comintern as a fervent young Indian nationalist until he lost his illusions in State Communism. They had moved to Berlin and had shared the problems of exile. She was making a name as an artist, and was featured in Hitler’s famous Exhibition of Decadent Art when they moved to Bombay. Starting again from scratch, she had specialised in Indian subjects. Acharya wrote me despairingly he could not bear to think she would be forgotten and asked me to arrange an exhibition in London.

I knew the art world wouldn’t be impressed by a letter from me in furnished rooms. But simultaneously I was asked to open an office as a front for the Spanish Resistance by Francisco Gomez. He had some connection with the campaign that followed the smashing of the Tallion Group in Spain after Sabater was killed and many arrested, Miguel Garcia among others being sentenced to death (commuted to twenty years as the result of pressure).

On two counts I had, therefore, to open an office. It was then impossible to get a house or flat, at least with the nil resources I had, but business premises posed no problem. I took a couple of office rooms at 374 Grays Inn Road: it is worth commenting on the building, which had played an important part in Dissident London since the early thirties. Over a milk bar almost facing Kings Cross Station there was quite a warren of small rooms all suitable for letting out. It had housed a moneylender on the first floor, but above that had been the offices of a variety of left-wing causes, from the embryonic Unity Theatre to the International Brigade Association, various Indian prisoners associations (all rival), peace groups and breakaway unions. Later there were also the Connolly Association, the Militant Tendency and the Oehlerites, until it finally passed into the hands of Time Out. Some rightist commentators later thought there was some sinister connection between them all. But it was quite fortuitous. It was simply cheap and run-down.

The owners were a railway excess properties trust, headed by Sir Bernard Docker, which enables me to say misleadingly that when I finally became the superior lessee, the famous international socialite of the Sixties, Lady Docker was my landlady.

The lessee who had taken over the lease when the moneylender had ceased business and the building had become vacant was entertaining, plausible and shady. For what it was worth he totally took me and a great many others in, though he never did very well out of it. He had been working for the type of space-selling trade directory in which a small business is persuaded to part with cash for an entry in a trades directory and the seller and publisher get half each. There is no salary or other contract. [The publisher gets half of each sale, even if the salesperson doesn’t make enough sales to cover bus fares, and doesn’t publish until they have enough revenue (some not at all).] The value to the client, who often forgets ever putting in an ‘entry’, is nil.

The publisher can’t lose, but Levene had been a successful salesman, with a technique based on straining people’s politeness till they either threw him out or gave in. The company offered to take him on salary. He felt this a trick as indeed it was. He was earning too much for their liking, and he tried throttling the managing director, which strained his relationship with the firm, and he therefore set up in his own. This is what pushed him into dubious dealing — he had never done so before. He produced dummy copies of directories and papers that never appeared and to cover the rent of the building let out the top floor to a business lady who was somewhat coy as to what her business was.

I told him I wouldn’t stay in the same building once her clients, though respectable enough in their bowler hats and suits, made it quite clear to me what the business was. He persuaded me to come into publication with him when he had got her out. I am afraid I was a sitting duck. I produced a dummy fashion trade magazine, not that I knew anything about fashion. My girl friend Evie did and she persuaded me into the venture. He offered me twice as much as I was earning at Reuters to work for him. I gave up my job accordingly.

We started a trade paper, based on his financial castle in the air. It was built on kite-flying, which is arranging with the bank to clear cheques immediately instead of waiting, and then swopping cheques with someone else who probably had nothing in the bank either but whose cheque would be honoured if another piece of paper could be found to cover it. This way two trade papers actually got off the ground but meanwhile I found that all the money coming in, such as it was, was going to him and only a fraction of my supposed salary going to me. I was being made responsible without realising it for all the gradually mounting debts.

Meanwhile he was letting out various rooms there, including the Movement for Colonial Freedom, many of whose supporters became important figures within independence struggles, much as many of Cores’s old Freedom Group speakers and habitues — George Padmore, Jomo Kenyatta, Krishna Menon — had done before. Some of the more sincere of this wave found themselves sidetracked, like Joseph Murumbi, or imprisoned like many others once national freedom had been achieved. Another was Abdul Rahman Babu, who zealously worked the duplicator. When he returned to Dar-es-Salaam it was as a Minister of State but not for long. He soon found himself in President Nyerere’s prisons.

As there were a number of Spanish emigre supporters of the MCF through Fenner Brockway, its chair, Gomez preserved his cover by claiming to be writing for the trade mags to explain his presence in the building. Levene suddenly discovered of himself — or so he said — that he had been made bankrupt years before and was thus illegally obtaining and living on credit, so he took the opportunity of my saying that I was Gomez’s employer by holding me out to his creditors as owner of the whole enterprise, and finally switched the lease to me.

He did find me an art gallery prepared to stage an exhibition of Magda Nachman’s paintings. It was things like that which made it hard to break off connections with him. Unfortunately, Acharya died suddenly. The Indian authorities blocked the export of Magda’s paintings and stated they had been claimed by Acharya’s legal widow, whom he had married at fifteen by parental arrangement and not seen for fifty odd years, and who thought she had come into unexpected treasure. So they vanished from sight.

Within eighteen months of my leaving Reuters I was going around without the price of a cup of coffee in my pocket at any one time, yet everyone I knew thought I was making a fortune. Why, I was managing editor of two papers. I had even a member of staff, Gomez, paid just for writing one article a month. I attracted unpublished writers like a magnet. As commercial television was about to start, one nutcase freelance tried to persuade me to start a magazine to cater for its audiences, with its programmes which he had learned the Radio Times wouldn’t carry. He was hesitant — yet insistent — on revealing his wonderful idea to me lest I start it and exclude him, as he knew it would be a money-spinner.

Indeed it proved to be so when, the following week, the TV Times came out — financed by somewhat more money than I carried round in my pocket — and this idiot felt I must have betrayed his confidence as nobody else could have thought of such an original idea, and if he’s still alive the poor sap probably thinks I still compete successfully with the Radio Times, and the fact that for years millions knew their Channel 3 and 4 programmes was due to his unfairly stolen brainwave.

Meanwhile I was visiting the county court regularly. Sometimes I had never heard of the creditor concerned, but Levene had run up debts in my name. Confronted with any reproach, he had an asthmatic seizure. It always occurred when confronted with reality — he was not conscious of defrauding anyone and lived in a fantasy world and always insisted he was trying to do his best for me.

I cut my losses and made a break with him though he never gave up popping back with fantastic schemes. Even I was not to be fooled when he began collecting subscriptions from back street East End tailors to place a deposit on a battleship. The idea was that having paid a small deposit, it would be sold to the Czechs, whose sole buying agency would deal with him (he insisted) as a still loyal Communist, as distinct from a normal trader. He had pointed out to all there was only one per cent commission — but on several million pounds. It is incredible that successful, but semi-literate, punters fell for this.

I have no idea from what port they thought the Czechs would operate their fleet, but in the course of his looking for backers, he had stumbled across Will Owen MP secretary of the Master Ladies Tailors Organisation, who had listened sympathetically. An old miners’ union official, in the Morpeth parliamentary seat as Buggins’ turn but a political and commercial innocent, he let himself be a sponsor. The Czech trading Consul approached with the bizarre scheme, dismissed it instantly but Czech Intelligence was attracted by the MP (it’s just possible they confused him with Dr Owen, the Foreign Secretary). For the next fifteen years they invited him to dinners, flattered him, gave him expense accounts for write-ups from trade magazines. Thus poor Mr Owen fell foul of British Intelligence. “Denounced” by a dodgy defector from Czech Intelligence, Josef Frolik, as a spy, though he had not even the chance of spying on anything or anybody, they brought a prosecution. The press thought him a left-winger, though he had always been well to the right if anything. He was an unsophisticated participant in someone else’s fantasy, as became clear in court. He was acquitted though disgraced and resigned his seat.

Meanwhile Levene had suddenly dropped dead in his thirties of a genuine asthmatic seizure, thus disproving everyone who had thought his attacks over-dramatised.

Ruling the Waves

While the idea of a successful TV Times, least of all financed by peanuts, did not impress me, I was somewhat more interested in the announcement in 1961, I think it was, by Pye of Cambridge that they were now in a position to build a hundred or so radio stations, which could be operated inexpensively. They submitted plans to the Pilkington Committee, set up to deliberate on the British Broadcasting Corporation’s monopoly.

Tories jumped at the idea of commercialised radio and television. Large advertisers could be guaranteed to preserve their domination of the waves. Most liberal and socialist people demurred at the idea, preferring the quasi-State monopoly. Nobody had considered the question of freedom of the airwaves. I reasoned that if broadcasting had been invented before printing, struggles for Freedom of the Airwaves would have ensured it became the sacred cow of liberal thought and there would have been an established British Publishing Corporation. The idea of extending this to printing would have been regarded as “revolutionary”.

True, the profit motive counted in print as much as anywhere else. But at least one could get a word in edgeways. Not in British radio. Yet in America everyone and anyone could buy time for any commercial, religious or political cause whatever, without necessarily owning a radio station. When one wanted a book printed here, one did not have to own a printing press. A publisher could apply to a printer, but the law prevented a radio producer buying time on a station.

Unfortunately, when I submitted my arguments to the Pilkington Committee, the unfortunate reference to America put everyone off, since American radio and television were held in such low esteem. But were they worse than British journalism?

I formed the short lived campaign group, the Radio Freedom League, supported by the rationalist J. M. Alexander and Kitty Lamb. We got nowhere, I am afraid, The idea of anyone having access to the air, the way anyone has access to a printing press providing one can pay the bill (a heavy obstacle, agreed) — as distinct from owning the works — was too wildly democratic. Anyway, the Committee decided to keep the stations limited, and make the most of commercial advertising.

Like many seemingly wild ideas, freedom of the air withered on the legal vine. But twenty years or so later the restrictions on broadcasting were challenged when the technical possibilities proved even simpler. Pirate radios challenged the law, some operated by commercialised music, some by the new sub-culture, even one or two by anarchists. To meet the challenge of the pirates, many more than Pye’s modest 100 stations now operate legally in the British Isles though there are still illegal ones. The latest notion is that if you can claim an “ethnic need” you might get one. They order these things better in France, where Radio Libertaire, doyen of free radios, is still flourishing without the least commercial backing.

Three Minute Celebrity

There was a very good Spanish Society in Liverpool, run by a Republican exile, situated in the modern languages school in Tithebarn Street. Purely for social purposes I went up there once at the invitation of Gomez. As usual, I had no idea what he was up to but he wanted me to cover for him. It was a literary occasion at which a number of the Spanish community was present, and politics tactfully ignored. My cherished friend Evie was due at a fashion showing at the Stork Hotel on the same night so we went up together by train, first class, entering it on her expenses. The carriage was empty but for us and the next compartment though it was standing room only in the rest of the train.

When a young ticket collector came in, he said excitedly, “Cliff Richard is next door”.

Really,” she remarked but I broke in, “For God’s sake don’t tell him we’re here”.

Oh, no, sir, of course not,” said the collector, who must have wondered who I was (I felt that way too sometimes). He seemed pleased at having two celebrities in one day and I later explained to Evie I had a friendly feeling for ticket collectors and inspectors ever since my Stockton to London journey all those years ago, so I never disillusioned him by saying he had but one. She riposted, “Cliff Richard’s quite famous, too, in his own way”.

The pop star had an enormous and excited crowd waiting at Liverpool. He and his companions stayed in their seats while we walked out and I acknowledged the cheers of the crowd at least one of whom waved back, Gomez. The singer and his entourage slipped out of the coach on the other side and made a dash for a waiting van which some fans pursued screaming as he scuttled off like a criminal. Such is fame.

We all went off to our respective appointments — Evie, I and Francisco to our hotel, and Cliff Richard and his group to theirs. We went to the Stork, where I met Republican exiles, as distinct from confederals, for the first time in any number. One of them was Luis Portillo, a socialist. He spoke on the philosopher Miguel de Unamuno, and mentioned in passing his famous last lecture. He had written it in Spanish and we reproduced it as a pamphlet in English, though it was not exactly our line. The elderly philosopher had spoken on Columbus Day at Salamanca University, in the company of senora Franco, shortly after the outbreak of civil war, and movingly defied the interruptions and outcries against Catalans and Basques by his audience. He publicly told the ferocious General Millan de Astray, whose battle cry was “Long live death”, among other things that he was a necrophiliac; that he could conquer but not convince; and that he would make Spain a war cripple like himself, with one eye and one arm lost in battle. Shortly afterwards, as might be expected, Unamuno died suddenly.

One Spanish lady came up to me at the reception, as one of the few non-Spanish present after the language students had gone, and showed me her infant sons. “What do you think of my little Englishmen?” she said proudly, offering them for an embrace. I kissed one of them dutifully. In later years I had an uneasy feeling the mother might have been senora Portillo, and the baby I kissed her son Michael, who grew up to come to a bad end. Fortunately it wasn’t, as it would never do for the reputation of either of us if the Sun, say, got hold of the story that I kissed a Tory Minister. It would certainly make me a celebrity for a few minutes, though I doubt to popular acclaim. Mrs Portillo, who was English, did not come to the meeting. Fortunately Gomez later assured me the proud Spanish lady was the wife of one of the other gentlemen playing at being Ministers, or family history would have repeated itself.

When my grandfather was in his 80s he woke up one night with a start and remembered that once as a youth in Vienna his father gave him, to throw in the bin, a long greasy coat discarded by a beggar to whom great-grandpa gave his own old coat. Instead he had given the coat to a charity collector, who had turned up its nose at the smelly rags at first. Sixty years later he read that Hitler as a young man in poverty had been handed just such a coat from that very charity, and it occurred to him with a shock that it might have been the identical coat that saved Hitler’s life that winter, and what seemed a minor good deed at the time cost millions of lives. He was not to be consoled by my grandmother working out, for all that she could not count, that this must have been at least twenty years before Hitler turned up in the city of song. Coats like that, he, he said mournfully, never seem to get scrapped but are constantly exchanged for newer ones.

Mr Portillo has not in the interim turned out as bad as Hitler, though one must give him time. Some mothers do have ‘em but I wish they wouldn’t offer them in their arms for strangers to kiss. I wonder how the other infants turned out, but it couldn’t be as badly.

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© Copyright: 1996 Albert Meltzer
Published by AK Press Book details and the Kate Sharpley Library.
Marked up by Chuck0 in 1996, originally posted at http://www.spunk.org/library/writers/meltzer/sp001591/angeltoc.html
(Reproofed by KSL May 2010).

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