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Trotsky's other son

By Carol Singh


Bob Gould found the following in a collection of English short stories in box of secondhand books he bought. The title, Trotsky's Other Son, interested him, and on reading it he found it was a humorous, semi-fictional tribute to Pat Jordan, a longtime British Trotskyist, and to the pioneering period leading up to the left revival in the later 1960s.

The story had an introduction indicating that Carol Singh lived in Derby and was unemployed at the time the story was written. The story is set in the St Ann's district of Nottingham. This area has been completely rebuilt, but was the city's worst slum. It was a maze of small, bustling streets.

Some years ago I lived in that part of the city which was known as St Ann's. It was a sprawling area of industrial and pre-industrial houses set in cobbled, hilly streets, to the north of the city centre. You walked along Parliament Street and turned down by the Milton's Head, passing the station and into a dirty old railway tunnel. Dim light from the constantly lit lamps shuddered around the tarred wooden walls and pools of rainwater in the mud floor. The smell of sulphur came strong, and overhead was an arc of black nothingness shared with unseen rattling trains. The tunnel was dark and so long that when you walked down it you forgot about daylight and it always came as a shock at the other end.

Leaving the tunnel you stepped out blinking into St Ann's. Across the road, standing guard at the edge of the area like a grey fortress with its barred, blank-faced windows, was a Victorian disease hospital, by this time devoted solely to treating venereal disease. Past the mass of the hospital the streets sloped down into Union Road, wide and dirty and noisy. House doors stood open, children and dogs and old people spilled from them on to the pavement. Pieces of privet and ancient lilac trees pushed their way up between slate roofs and outside lavatories. Willow herb lodged where it could. The pavement, which were of many kinds of brick, were stained with dust, spilt icecream, dog turds, rotting fruit, lolly sticks, bits of disintegrating cardigan, and other matter which had irreparably lost its form and could only be guessed. Factories and churches and cream-painted pubs were pushed in between houses. In spite of the traffic, packs of fat pigeons roamed around near the kerb edge and in the gutters, picking up spilt food outside the chip shops. They even crossed the road on their feet. Somewhere there was an ancient well dedicated to St Ann. Nobody seemed to know where it was. It had probably been built over in the last century, when next to Calcutta, Nottingham had the worst slums in the British Empire. The oldest and dirtiest buses ran the circumference of the area. Teachers at the school drove to St Ann's in the mornings and straight out again at four o'clock, leaving it untouched.

Turning by the Oliver Cromwell1 and into the main thoroughfare of Great Alfred Street, you saw a renaissance-style Methodist chapel, with pillars and portico and a wide sweep of steps, which was now a rubber-tubing factory. On the opposite corner was a secondhand bookshop. In its window an assortment of tatty paperback books was laid out in lines, and highly coloured American comics and packets of nylons and crayons were strung across the back of the window on a piece of string. A few dead flies lay scattered over the books, and a black cat was blissfully asleep in the sunshine which managed to penetrate through the dusty window. Here, like a yucca moth giving and taking from its plant, lived Michael Pat Jones.

Michael Pat was small, thickset and muscly, with large shovelly hands near his body, like a mole's, and he seemed to have a very large head, proportionate to his body as a baby's is to its body. He was nearly totally bald, and perhaps because of it his age was hard to place, he seemed old and yet unborn, there was something very foetal about him. He wore plastic tortoiseshell spectacles which had broken at the bridge, and he stuck them together by holding them over a gasflame until the plastic melted. As they kept snapping and he kept sticking them in this way, he wore a progressively more owlish expression as his eyes seemed to get closer and closer together. From the front of the shop he sold secondhand books and comics, but in the back room he kept his duplicator ever turning, churning out documents and political statements and a weekly news-sheet. On the shelves around the wall were pamphlets, mostly by Lenin and Trotsky. The shop front was always pushing with children, and when he was working in the back room, Michael operated a type of rigid prefect system worthy of the board schools.2 Any child caught thieving could expect — and get — very rough justice, St Ann's justice, from the boy in charge. There was great brutality in those days and in that place, and Michael was part of it. Hating still came completely naturally to him, he was not caught up with any ideas of social service or condescension.

Over the house was the smell of damp and cats. The stairs wound round twice, impinging into the rooms by the curves in its journey. The rooms were tiny, almost like large cupboards. There is something about tiny rooms which I like, they can by stultifying, smells linger in the brickwork, but you can expand your being and almost feel it hit against the walls, as though they are containing it, holding it whilst you grow. This can become intolerable, but it's better than wobbling disembodied in a vast room, or having all the objects in a well-planned room conspire against you. Michael Pat's room contained a low single bed heaped high with old blankets and about three old eiderdowns that different people had given him so he wouldn't be cold. Filthy curtains hung at the window, which was lodged permanently closed by a huge spanner which served instead of the catch, which was missing. The wallpaper in here, as in the rest of the place, was dusty and old and looked of the kind of pattern which fluttered from bombsites. Around three sides of the room were files and files of documents and old chewed newspapers and correspondence. The floor was littered with books and boxes. Clumps of shoes were being attacked by the mould. In a corner was a heap of dirty shirts which he periodically kicked aside in order to play on the lidless gramophone underneath his one record — Under Moscow Skies — sung very slowly in French. The catch on the door didn't work, and so it was liable to bang all night if it was windy — the place was full of draughts and if the wind blew outside it blew inside too — keeping the occupants of the house awake.

I had left home to fly-stick3 and demonstrate against the Cuban missile crisis, and never went back. When you have spent several days thinking the world is about to be blown up things are never quite the same afterwards. There were many of us for whom that was true, and even many who did go home again afterwards were effectually driven from their families in spirit. Michael could be very stern. "You must study." And he pulled out a table from the heap of mouldering documents and rubbish in his cellar, and set it up in my room for me to work on. "The working class needs its people to know as much as they can. You owe it to your class as well as yourself to develop."

For breakfast we all ate icecream from a van, even in the winter. Breakfasting from a tub of splintery ice with lashings of butterscotch was much better than being at boring old home eating boring old cereal before rushing off to boring old work. I was permanently afflicted with the adolescent curse of boredom. Michael boiled a kettle for tea practically non-stop throughout the day, and conducted fiendish sessions of mass egg boiling, enough to last several days at once, to save himself the bother of cooking. We ate pork chops with baked beans or lamb chops with peas — the lamb he casseroled in the oven by placing it in the frying-pad and balancing a rusty old cake tin over the top. I liked to watch him cook. It seemed as though it was just part of his function as a magician — a touch here, and there was a meal, a touch there, and there was an up-to-the-minute news-sheet and a room full of people waiting to staple it together and put it into envelopes.

He would suddenly take off for whole weeks with a moment's notice. "Well I'm off now, if the bailiffs come round tell them the duplicator isn't mine …" The first time I heard this I was scared stiff, but I soon got used to it. His attitude to money was a mixture of disregard as to where it came from and indifference as to where it went. He took not the slightest notice of any bill until the final demand came. The gas bill would come. He would empty the gas-meter, find there wasn't enough money in it because he had paid the electricity bill with most of it, and so he would open up the coin box on the telephone. Those bills and any connected with the working of the duplicator were the only ones he paid fully. Other people were sent odd pounds whenever they complained. "But that bill's for nine pounds!" I cried, the first time I saw him put a pound note in an envelope. He waved a hand dismissively, as though he was the creditor, "Doesn't matter. This will keep them quiet."

Michael Pat's first talk to us was on the relevance of Marxism to everyday life, and he used the simple example of the straw that broke the camel's back to give us an idea of a qualitative change from a quantitative change. We were very young, and it was like being back at a kind of delightful school, with simple learning but no teachers. As Marxists, he said (with some exaggeration) we must recognise that everything, all matter, moved, always, that nothing stood still, and that attitudes based on the forcing of stasis or "standards" or "order" were both evil and — probably more important — futile. We must recognise that matter moved and changed and became transmuted, and learn to build upon that knowledge; never attempt to deny or thwart the movement or push of life. In a sense, he said, the parable of the shifting sands is incomplete; you had to build upon shifting sand because that was the only kind there is. Instead of being inauthentic adults whose only task in life was to carry out what your employers commanded, we suddenly became again children with invisible building bricks, getting the feel of impermanence, learning to create, destroy, create. My vocabulary book, abandoned when I left school, was pulled out of my old satchel and suddenly bursting with a crop of new words — helot, hegemony, latifundist, stakhanovite, putsch — words which thrilled me and that I wouldn't have learned then from any other source.

Michael's attitude to children who came into the shop varied according to his mood. They regarded him with awe-touched suspicion, relieved by bursts of sudden, completely unprovoked enthusiasm. He was authoritarian, but mad. He was liable to punch the boys and use extreme convoluted obscenities to them. He was merely extremely rude to the girls. This never made him unpopular. Many children whose parents were at work until five or six o'clock came straight to the bookshop from school, particularly in the winter, and Michael never turned them out, even if they didn't buy anything. He told big lies about everything and everybody, and this seemed to appeal to the children. "Here, are you really old Michael's step-mother?" I was asked by Alec, who helped in the shop. My mouth fell open while the other children called and whistled and jostled by the paraffin heater. Michael often told them stories. One story which started it life in the back rooms had found its way, via Rocco, another of the boys who worked for Michael, into the shop. "Be quiet, you lot," he hollered, "and when he comes back Michael'll tell you all about Trotsky's son.

One of the pamphlets in the back room had been dedicated by Trotsky to his elder son — Leon Sedov, Son, Fighter, Friend4 — commemorated in epithets of granite. He had been murdered by Stalinists as he lay in a Paris hospital. This was very sad, but I was a nasty little thing and chock full of spite and I didn't like having my heart wrung. I preferred Trotsky's other son. I've never subsequently heard of him outside of the conversation of Michael Pat, and have no idea if he really existed. Michael claimed to have read a book about him, and so was constantly able to come out with nuggets of fresh information. When in what was our understanding Marxism became too much for me, I would insist: "Tell us about Trotsky's other son."

According to Michael Pat, Trotsky's other son wasn't political at all, the atmosphere in his home thick with politics since he was born merely bored him, and he ran off to join a circus. "Let's see, what was his name …" He snapped his fingers trying to recall it. Michael told of the acrobats and the clowns, of Spangles the bareback rider who was in love with Trotsky's other son ("Spangles?" mouthed the more sophisticated backroom contingent. "Well you know what I mean. In translation,'' was the impatient reply). But Trotsky's other son didn't care about anybody except Mitsi, the pretty dappled horse who danced and curtseyed. He saved titbits for her, and when she led the other horses out into the ring his heart almost burst with excitement as she nodded her head to one of the clowns and danced in time to the music and people cheered. Michael told of his life from day to day, the hardships due to the famine and, as the revolution degenerated, to the persecution of the authorities. Finally the circus was rounded up and sent to the salt mines, accused of misleading the masses. The conjurer was accused of "deceiving the people"; the clowns of "performing acts lacking in socialist content". Then one time, whether due to a fit of pique or moral earnestness I don't know (probably the latter), Michael over-reached himself and etched in a deathbed conversion to Trotskyism in Siberia, and I never really believed him after this.

Michael Pat escaped from St Ann's just before the sociologists descended and treatises and theses were written, statistics compiled and analyses made of them. American photographers came with astronomically expensive cameras to photograph rats and rubbish. Shamed, the council immediate plans to pull down the area, literally wipe it from the face of the earth. New concrete blocks have appeared, the old pattern of the streets and their Cromwellian names have been wiped out, and across the acres of rubble over Hutchinson Street many small fires crackle and smoke, like hellfire trying to break out. No longer walled up in his bookshop, Michael Pat moves around — London, Brussels, Addis, Paris … St Ann's is a long way behind him now. Most of us proved Michael's dismal expectations correct as to our revolutionary worthiness. We all reneged in one way or another, either from convenience or simple laziness. I haven't seen any of the comrades for years. But the other day on the bus I bumped into Alec, Michael's paper-boy. He is grown up now and married and working at Gedding Colliery. He asked if I'd heard anything of old Michael Pat. I shook my head. Then he turned and said with enthusiasm, "Here, do you remember Trotsky's son and Spangles and the horse? I was telling my missis about that when we were courting. What happened to them in the end?"

1. The Oliver Cromwell, a public house named after the 17th century leader of the Parliamentary forces in the English Civil War.

2. Board schools were where working-class children went at the beginning of the 19th century up to the age of 11.

3. Fly-stick: to stick posters on wall, trees, anywhere, without permission.

4. Trotsky had four children, Nina, Zina (Zinaida), Sergei and Leon (Lev or Liova). The two daughters were from his first marriage, to Alexandra Sokolovskaia (Lvovna), a prominent Russian revolutionary with whom he was exiled to Siberia in 1900. The two sons were from his later marriage to Natalia Sedova. Nina, whose health broke after her husband, Man Nevelson, was deported by the Stalinists, died on June 9, 1928. Zina, suffering from tuberculosis, committed suicide in Berlin in 1933. Leon Sedov was murdered by Stalinists in Paris in 1938, and Sergei, a technician, was arrested in 1935 on charges of "poisoning workers" and died in a concentration camp in 1937. Victor Serge recounts a 1941 meeting with Trotsky's grandson, Vsevolod (Siova) Volkov, Zina's son.

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Since October 17, 2003

Created on November 1, 2002