You may have read before in these Proceeding of the Poetical Society of Pitshanger how Ealing once played host to future revolutionary Ho Chi Minh, but he was a latecomer compared to the patriarchs of the proletarian paradise. The fact is that London was one of the greatest cities in the formation of Communism, a melting pot brought to the boil, where Karl Marx was granted the asylum that he could find nowhere else in Europe, and where Vladimir Lenin pitched up on six occasions between 1902 and 1911, including the second conference of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party in and around Bloomsbury.
Never heard of them ? Well, the most notable occurrence at the conference was a split in the party between a minority faction (the Mensheviks) and the majority (the Bolsheviks). They convened again in 1905, the year of the failed revolution, and in 1907 the fifth convening was the largest yet, with Stalin, Trotsky, Maxim Gorky and Rosa Luxemburg all in attendance on the Brotherhood church on the Islington/Hackney borders.
This month, November, is the hundredth anniversary of the ten days that shook the world (because of course the October Revolution was only in October by the Julian calendar, not the Gregorian). What followed is very well documented, but before 1917 nobody in London was watching these agitators and dreamers except a few spies from the Tsar, and maybe the Met. So who is hanging around in London today what we will all have heard of in a dozen years time ?
Were there any revolutionaries at this week’s workshop ? Maybe Doig Simmonds from the veteran versifiers, hanging on the line to Heaven’s switchboard, or Peter Francis of the Shropshire Underground, receiving brief absolution with a penny for the beggar. Radical academical Anne Furneaux has been musing on Free Will (in defiance of the historical inevitability of our struggle), while Caroline Am Bergris of the catering corps has been cooking up a big batch of Freedom. Tin-pan rhymer Martin Choules has been busy writing slogans to rally the comrades, though they seem to suggest a different outcome for our glorious struggle, of which John Hurley poignantly reminded us with memorial to the recent attack in Manchester and what we’re up against.
New recruit Bashir Sakhawarz brought us a troika of poems smuggled out of his homeland, and ever-watchful Pat Francis has been intuiting the religion of the leaves and birds. Attracting the wrong sort of attention was Samir Hazlehurst, showing impressionistic, even decedent tendencies in his recounting of a breakup, while Daphne Gloag wove an allegory about a lizard and an asteroid, but what could be its deeper meaning ? And as for Alan Chambers, he has been eavesdropping on conversations held by the wind, the river, and the heartless stars.
It is easy to glamorise these figures after a century, especially as London was so far away from the subsequent purges. Now Lenin was no Stalin, but at the very least he was elbows-deep in the Red Terror which led to the murder of tens of thousands, and one wonders how many deaths it takes to start feeling queasy about the blue plaques (but on the other hand, they are intended to remind us of just how much stuff has gone on in London). And let’s face it, they are so easy to glamorise because they are glamorous – literal world-changers, dynamic, idealistic, rugged and bearded in second-hand ushankas and as-yet uncorrupted by their later actions.
At this point the patient reader may be expecting a recount of the time Volodya Ilyich and his wife Nadya Krupskaya dropped in on a Tuesday evening following an intense session at the convention and needing to unwind with some heavily accented and heavily Marxist critiquing of Rudd Kipling as “imperialist” and Algie Swinburne as “bourgeois”, while cheering on Alfie Noyes’s Highwayman, but it is with some relief to tell you that no such reference has been found.
Instead, let us turn to the meeting on Tuesday the 7th of November, the very evening when the Bolsheviks were storming the Winter Palace in Petrograd, and the Second Battle of Passchendaele was waging: the old guard of Tommy Hardy and Billy Yeats were facing off against the upstarts Tom Eliot and Hilda Doolittle, Victorian versus Modernist, struture against liberation, but in typically British fashion the only violence was when a rhythm sprung and an infinitive got split.