Was Cable Street the reason Mum was Communist?

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[Image: My mother, Connie Isakofsky, and Harold]

In his hilarious and passionate new memoir, So They Call You Pisher!, Michael Rosen recalls his life up until the age of 23, living with his Jewish and Communist parents in North London. The influence of Rosen's parents is felt throughout the book and he writes vividly about his family home, switching often to Yiddish (a pisher, by the way, is someone of little importance). Through these early experiences, Rosen also tells a story of left politics, the activism of the 1950s and 60s and his own journey of radical self-discovery.

While Harold was growing up in this house behind the London Hospital, our mother was living up the road in Bethnal Green, over a shop. My father spoke of the shop as being something pathetic, somewhere where Mum’s mother tried to sell hats that I think she herself made.

Bethnal Green, he made out, was like some dangerous place where a kid like him wouldn’t dare to go, yet that was where she was from. Standing behind her in a cloud of vagueness from before the First World War was Mum’s grandfather who ‘did dairy’. In the vagueness, he makes cream cheese, sour cream, yoghurt and shmatana. He must have taught it to the rest of the family: the only good thing Harold ever said about Mum’s mother was that she could make wonderful shmatana.

My parents met in 1936 in a room where the Young Communist League held its meetings. It’s not hard to figure out how Harold got there. His mother Rose was a Communist and her father, Joseph, living in the same house, was a socialist who had joined the forerunner to the Labour Party and the Communist Party, the Social Democratic Federation. Mum’s parents, on the other hand, didn’t seem to me to be part of this kind of thing, though Mum did once mutter very disapprovingly that her father used to go to meetings which she described as ‘Trotskyist’. A Trotskyist? It sounded bad.

Were there any clues in what Mum said to us, in the stories she told us? She often described her first sighting of our father. He was playing table tennis at the YCL’s meeting place, she said. ‘It was his hair, his beautiful auburn hair.’ ‘I knew straightaway’, she would add, ‘that he was the one. He didn’t have a say in it.’

No, that didn’t sound very Communist.

Much clearer was Cable Street. In real life this was the occasion when hundreds of thousands of people stopped Oswald Mosley, the leader of the British Union of Fascists, from trying to march through the East End. In our house, with my mother telling us the story over the kitchen table, it was about how she and Harold – who she had only recently started seeing, they were just seventeen – ended up down a side street, off Cable Street, on the wrong side of the barricades, with mounted police charging up towards them.

‘Luckily,’ she said, ‘just where we were standing, a door opened behind us and someone pulled us into their house.’

Harold refined this by telling us that the mounted police had been blooded in India and used the long sticks they had tried out there. Brian Pearce, who Brian was named after, and who came to stay with us when he split up with Fanny Greenspan, told him that.

I figured out that Mum and Harold had been really brave at Cable Street but I didn’t think the bit about being on the wrong side of the barricades was as funny as they thought it was. I didn’t get the joke.

‘We were on the wrong side of the barricades!’
No, I didn’t get it.
But who was this Mosley? He hated Jews and was trying to stir people up.

So why did he try to come into a place where there were Jews? To show he was in charge. He wanted to be Prime Minister.

But why did the police keep charging at you, if Mosley was bad? Ah! And the point is, he didn’t get through. We stopped him.

Did he get to be Prime Minister? Oh, no.

Was Cable Street the reason why Mum was Communist? Harold said, ‘With your mother, boys, it was those girls at Central Foundation. They were the ones who really got her interested.’

Many years later, I remember an occasion when the son of an old friend of our parents was telling them that they had ‘betrayed the working class’ and Mum stood up and said very loudly, ‘Who else was going to defend us, eh?’

The above is excerpted from So They Call You Pisher! by Michael Rosen.

In this hilarious, moving memoir, much-loved children’s poet and political campaigner Michael Rosen recalls the first twenty-three years of his life. He was born in the North London suburbs, and his parents, Harold and Connie, both teachers, first met as teenage Communists in the Jewish East End of the 1930s. The family home was filled with stories of relatives in London, the United States and France and of those who had disappeared in Europe.

Different from other children, Rosen and his brother, Brian, grew up dreaming of a socialist revolution. Party meetings were held in the front room. Summers were for communist camping holidays. But it all changed after a trip to East Germany when, in 1957, his parents decided to leave ‘the Party’.

From that point, Michael followed his own journey of radical self-discovery: running away to Aldermaston to march against the bomb; writing and performing in experimental political theatre at Oxford; getting arrested during the 1968 movements. The book ends with a letter to his father, and the revelation of a heartbreaking family secret.