Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Goodbye to a good comrade

PETER FRYER. Good comrade, and excellent teacher.

I heard the sad news last night that Peter Fryer had died. He had been ill for some time, but until recently he was still taking the bus in the morning down to the British Library, where he was researching for his latest book, provisionally entitled Behind the Blues.

Born in Hull, in 1927, the son of a merchant navy officer whom Depression hardships inclined to the Right, Peter turned the other way, joining the Young Communist League in 1942 and the Communist Party in 1945. He had left school in 1943, becoming a reporter on the Yorkshire Post. Sacked in 1947 because he refused to leave the Communist Party, he joined the staff of the Daily Worker in 1948, and became its parliamentary correspondent.

That year he was also sent down to Tilbury to cover the arrival of the Empire Windrush, bringing the first large number of West Indian immigrants to work and settle in Britain. Seeing them arrive planted a lasting interest which was to find fruit many years later in what became probably his best-known book, Staying Power: The History of Black People in Britain (1984).

In October 1956, Communist Party supporters buffeted first by Khrushchev's 20th Congress speech and then the news from Hungary told themselves that it would soon be alright, because the Worker was sending Fryer to Hungary to bring the truth about what was really happening. In fact, Peter Fryer's dispatches, reporting how working people, socialists and communists, were taking part in the uprising, and how brutally they were suppressed by the secret police and Russian troops, were heavily censored or suppressed by the Daily Worker editors, and he quit the paper in disgust.

After putting some of what he had seen and heard into the book Hungarian Tragedy, Peter Fryer was expelled from the Communist Party for publically criticising it, and so could not attend the stormy party congress which saw many leaving the party.

At a time when many were abandoning communism, disillusioned and demoralised, and moving to the Right, Peter Fryer was among the few who sought a revolutionary alternative. He became the editor of The Newsletter, which was backed by Gerry Healy's group of Trotskyists then working chiefly in the Labour Party, but turned resolutely towards disillusioned Communist Party members, and industrial militants.

With Healy, former Communist Party members Cliff Slaughter and Tom Kemp, Brian Behan (brother of playwright Brendan) and others, Peter was a founder of the Socialist Labour League, which sought affiliation to the Labour Party as a Marxist group on the same terms enjoyed by the Fabians, but was instead immediately proscribed by Labour officialdom, with numerous expulsions.

The League continued its work within Labour's youth sections, reinforced by capable cadres expelled from the Young Communist League, among the trade union rank and file, and around the growing Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament CND). It was outside a CND rally at Manchester's Free Trade Hall that I bought my first copy of The Newsletter. I'd already heard of it from a right-wing Economic League leaflet and a Sunday newspaper article denouncing the "Trotskyist plot to wreck Britain", so it came well recommended! Someone gave me a leaflet advertising a meeting, "Youth Must Organise", organised by the youth paper Keep Left, and I went along with a mate from school.

One of the first things I was given to read by the SLL, along with Trotsky's Transitional Programme, was Peter Fryer's book The Battle for Socialism. Highly readable, and yet packed with sourced quotes and information, it put the Marxist case in modern English, grounded in contemporary issues and struggles, and together with the Programme became my well-thumbed guide to political action.

Among Peter Fryer's other contributions about this time were two pamphlets: "Defend the ETU - from Fleet Street and King Street!" (1958) was about the crisis in the Electrical Trades Union, where a Communist Party ballot-rigging scandal exposed in the press was used by an alliance of ex-Communists and Catholics to establish a right-wing leadership. (Fleet Street was of course then the home of the British capitalist press, while King Street had the headquarters of the Communist Party).

"Black the H-Bomb & the Rocket Bases! " [1958].brought the growing movcement against Britain becoming a nuclear war base, expressed in marches and direct action, together with the working class rediscovery of its industrial muscle, arguing that trades unionists should "black" - refuse to work on - nuclear weapons and missile bases. At this time some big unions had swung behind unilateralism in the Labour Party, but the idea of using industrial action rather than just passing resolutions which leaders ignore was very radical. Later the SLL supported the same kind of action to implement the South African boycott.

But already, as I was reading Peter Fryer, he was finding Healy's regime in the Socialist Labour League as repressive as the one he had rebelled against in the Communist Party, and decided he had had enough.

After leaving the League, Peter produced a book on Salazar's Portugal, written together with Patricia McGowan Pinheiro, then found a kind of niche with works like Mrs Grundy. Studies in English prudery, (1963) . The Birth Controllers (1965). and Private Case – Public Scandal (1966). about the hidden books of the British Museum. Anticipating the freer attitudes of the late 1960s onwards, these explorations of how society represses and twists human nature were sneered at by Gerry Healy, whose own prudish and puritanical regime concealed years of bullying and sexual abuse of comrades.

It was after the WRP majority had seen off Healy and some of us had come back to give it another go, coming in as amateurs after work to produce the Workers Press, that editor Geoff Pilling brought Peter Fryer back on board. Peter's individual column put some people's backs up, but besides lifting our paper's overall quality, he was a great bloke to work with, always approachable, helpful, and a good comrade. He never rejoined the party, whether because twice bitten he was thrice shy, as I assumed, or because he knew that, as turned out, it would not last.

However, our newfound links with Latin American Trotskyists, and Peter's personal interest (his daughter married a Brazilian) led to him making a tour and the book Crocodiles in the streets. A report on Latin America, New Park (1987). We had also republished his Hungarian Tragedy. This was republished again in 1997 with an introduction by Hungarian Trotskyist Balasz Nagy, who had been an active participant in the 1956 events.

In 1988, as a follow-up to Staying Power, came Black people in the British Empire. An introduction, published by Pluto, and as Peter came into increasing demand as a speaker there were several publications based on talks he gave, both on Black history and on another subject about which he was becoming an expert, African roots of music, which made for good fundraisers as well as enjoyable evenings. Rhythms of Resistance, about the African musical heritage in Brazil, was published in 2000.

I'd also mention his little booklet Lucid, Vigorous and Brief: Advice to New Writers, published by Index Books in 1993, and reissued in 1998, not just because he gave me a kind mention(!) but because he wrote it particularly for those of us writing for the left and workers movement, and it is a great help. Remembering Peter, I think he would have made an ideal professor, not one of those who swagger with donnish airs or become ambitious bossy bureaucrats, but an excellent teacher, his enthusiasm for his subjects exceeded only by his pleasure in helping his students.

It was last August, on an unseasonally cold wet night in Whitehall, taking part in a demonstration about the shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes on the London Underground, that I met Peter Fryer. He was looking weak and ill, having just come out of hospital, but he said he felt he had to be there for that demonstration. Besides the general issue of the police shooting an innocent man in their so-called war on terror there was a sort of personal connection - electrician Jean Charles had done the wiring for Peter's son in law's restaurant, and been a popular, well-liked person in London's Brazilian community, with which Peter had a family link.

After that we occasionally met in the British Library, though I was not as regular and conscientious a worker as Peter, and sometimes only arrived as he was going. But early in September we arranged to meet for a chat over a coffee. Peter had been beavering away in the Rare Books and Music section for the book he wanted to finish, a study of life in Mississippi in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, under the working title Behind the Blues.

I had been hoping to persuade him to contribute an article for Jewish Socialist, or an interview, about the Hungarian revolt. He told me he liked the magazine, but did not feel up to taking on extra work as he was not well and was anxious to finish his book. He let us use an extract from Hungarian Tragedy instead. I also gave him a leaflet about the Brent Trades Union Council's Grunwick commemoration, which of course interested him, though as I should have realised, he would not able to come.

Though he managed a smile and a friendly chat, Peter knew he was suffering from an aneurism on the aorta, and perhaps he knew he might not make it to Hungarian revolution commemorations -such as the one tomorrow night - let alone celebrate his 80th birthday next year. Hopefully some form of public tribute will be held then nonetheless. I feel inclined to say, "Goodbye, Comrade Chips". .

Some extracts from Hungarian Tragedy

More from Index Books:

Full bibliography at

Looking back to 1956

EVENTS 50 years ago shaped the ideas of a generation. First Khruschev's "secret speech", revealing the depth of Stalin's crimes, then came the suppression of the Hungarian revolt, at the same time as the Anglo-French-Israeli invasion of Egypt.

With disillusionment and anger, came new hopes for alternatives. How far were they fulfilled, and how well did we understand our period? What really happened, and what are the lessons for today's militants and radicals?

As part of the discussion, there's a seminar at Goldsmiths College on Thursday, November 2, at 5.30pm, for 6pm, sponsored by Revolutionary History and the London Socialist Historians' Group, with Toby Abse, Bob Archer, Ian Birchall, Keith Flett and Paul Flewers.

It's in the Richard Hoggart Building, Room 143, which is on Lewisham Way, SE14, nearest tube New Cross.

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At 8:50 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks Charles, an interesting and informative obit about a man whose life was well spent.

At 11:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks Charlie for ths wonderful glimpse into the life of an obviously wonderful man...
Let me join you in saying Farewell to this wonderful Comrade.

At 10:20 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Goeff Foote writes A good write up, Charlie. He was a Communist of the Old School, whose personal and political integrity led him out of the Party as it led him in. The Socialist Labour League in the late 50's contained a great deal of the best type of Marxist writing, Fryer's not the least. I read an article by him where he explained in the clearest English the reasons for the Left being so strong in the unions when they were unable to command political support. His reports on Hungary for the Daily Worker guarantee his place of honour on the Left. The Left itself - whether CP or Healy - let his hopes down - as they did the hopes of so many socialists.

At 9:11 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

BBC Radio 4 carried an obituary and an interview with Peter Fryer yesterday


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