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Corridors: Remembering Tony Benn

I wandered back to the crinkly brain soaked in a jar. All the experiences of the world happen here in this faint grey galaxy of thoughts. After looking for the longest while at the remains of a dead universe in a bottle – microcosmic diamond particles amounting to a smudge on the glass like the breath of an ant – I stood now before a dead universe in a jar. Neurospeak states memory is a biophysical trace stored in the brain, but says nothing of the sensation of sound, the smell of rain, the travels of the imagination, and the indeterminate degrees of hope, sadness, joy, love and fear felt along the journey. Perhaps whoever was in that jar was once in the world in that way. In any event it ended, as it will for all of us. Someone cracked open the skull, removed the brain and held it in one hand, held it just like a baby, then rinsed it under a cold water tap, plopped it into a glass container and put it on display in a museum case. It may have searched all its life for solutions and now it found itself immersed in one.

I took the long way round to put at a distance the staggering stack of psychology papers to be marked at home. Notwithstanding the faint drizzle – hardly perceptible, yet somehow it soaked me right through – and the cold, and the greyness, and perhaps also the loneliness, it was good to be out; the wide wet pavements of Holland Park Avenue reflected the branches of the bare plane trees, giving it an almost Parisian boulevard feel, and I enjoyed the sense of walking in two cities at once. Admittedly, my left foot was sludgy and distinctly uncomfortable – I had a hole at the little toe – but I was hardly down-and-out; walking past the Holland Park mansions (guide price £24m), I saw people hauling their entire homes around in laundry bags (price on application). They could belong to another time, easily the days when Engels was gathering material for The Condition of the Working Class in England. It seemed to me a disproportionately large number of the wretched, pitiful, poor encountered on the streets of London were Scottish; I often studied faces hard, to see if I went to school with any of them. What stories might their crinkly brains reveal?

My squidgy foot found a resting place on the spar of a cafe in Notting Hill Gate – my regular spot – and I stared out the window at the rain and darkness falling down. Tony Benn appeared in Video City the night before, straight across from where I was now sitting. He often rushed past the cafe window to the supermarket with his wheelie-gadabout, but it surprised me to see him there. He was on the way out as I entered – I held the door for him – and I couldn’t help searching the shelves for the film he might have rented. A blustery night, he had on his big woollen hat, the same one as the last three years. I frequently noticed him, his apparent ordinariness, but could never bring myself to say hello, though I often wished I had. Imagine there was just one chance and I didn’t take it to stop and give a wave to Wagner, or hello to Hardie. Yet here now was Tony Benn, in the world, walking past the cafe, shopping in Tesco, renting a film, in the same space as me.

​I knew Tony since childhood. He entered our modest home in Glasgow Cross via the cathode ray tube, and continued to visit after we moved a couple of miles upmarket to a smarter place (one with an inside bathroom) in a patch dominated by working class Tories under Teddy Taylor’s tutelage – the man who called for the police to be armed, for the return of the death penalty, and for Nelson Mandela to be shot. He was popular among the neighbours, and to state a preference for his complete opposite, Benn – an ardent advocate for peace, for socialist state ownership, and for reasoned argument – was to state a preference for social ostracism. Tony was open-minded, gave hope and radiated cheerfulness, and whilst he wasn’t as left as many on the left would have liked, he believed politics shouldn’t be the preserve of the privileged, he saw socialism as a way of understanding the world, and he did everything he could to live it. Tony Benn felt like one of us – as Schiller put it, ‘It is not flesh and blood but hearts that make us a family’. I really do wish I had said hello.

Shortly after I moved to Notting Hill, Tony Benn was invited to give a talk at our local library, the Pembridge branch – an attempt by the library staff to save it from closure. I got a signed copy of one of his diaries for my mother, a lifelong fan, and he chose the inscription, ‘To Kathleen, with peace’. He said he always loved the name Kathleen. When I visited her back home in Edinburgh with the signed book I passed on Tony’s remark. She said she loved it too. A year or two later, I received a kindly worded letter from Tony stating he liked some things I had written, but although I saw him pass the coffee shop window many times thereafter, the thought of introducing myself never got any easier. And it wasn’t just Tony; Eduardo Paolozzi, the world-renowned Edinburgh artist, often sat in his wheelchair right beside me in that coffee shop – rolled in, assisted by a young woman who was clearly his care attendant (they never spoke). I admired his work, and often discussed it, but I never managed to pluck up the courage to say a word. It was well known he liked to talk, and since he was from back home, how could I go wrong?

Ripple-effect back in time to a Saturday afternoon in the mid-1980s. I was in the Third Eye Centre in Glasgow’s Sauchiehall Street with my ten-year-old son who had just got into a conversation with Glasgow photographer, Oscar Marzarolli – the Arts Centre was hosting an exhibition of his work. He was looking at a photograph of people skiing in Aviemore – charcoal, Lowryesque figures – and Marzarolli, who happened to be standing behind us at the time, said to him, “It took me hours to get that shot!” A conversation followed about the photographs he took of hawkers in Paddy’s market, the Castlemilk boys, and the Golden haired lass of the Gorbals – my son had those postcards on his bedroom wall. Sitting a few feet from Paolozzi in a café in Notting Hill twenty years later, I muddled up the Italian names in my crinkly brain: Paolozzi became Marzarolli. Fear fortunately got the better of me, and I ignored the impulse to say hello to Mr Marzarolli (dead the best part of a decade by that time). On reading Paolozzi’s obituary soon afterwards, I learned that he had been in a wheelchair because he had suffered a stroke and had lost the power of speech. Life at the end looked lonely enough for him without a stranger implying he had already been forgotten.

Three years after Tony Benn signed his book for my mother, I got on a London to Edinburgh train and made my way across country to Crosshouse Hospital in Kilmarnock. I hadn’t seen my mother in nine months – time, cost and teaching commitments – and was unaware of the extent of her deteriorating health over that time. I wandered the corridors and got lost. Eventually I encountered a nurse writing a report whilst standing at a desk in a corridor. She indicated directions with her pen, but I just got lost in other corridors, or the same corridors, and in memory. Hospitalworld was part of my childhood when my mother was a nurse at the Royal Beatson cancer care hospital in Glasgow. I remembered the night raids she carried out – liberating my toys and comics and putting them in the hands of dying children in the ward. I knew some children by name, and I knew the nurses, my mother’s friends: low-paid, overworked, outspoken, and overwhelmingly supportive; they often put in the extra hours to hold the trusting hand of someone on their terrifying journey.

Some elderly people were in bed, but a small group of five or six in dressing gowns were sitting up on chairs huddled around talking, and I looked among them fully expecting my mother to be there. She would always be found in the midst of conversation, talking and laughing with strangers as though she had known them for years, bringing down the government, discussing all possible utopias, in heaven and on earth. But she wasn’t there. She wasn’t anywhere. I heard them complaining about how cold it was in the ward, and one man said loudly to the others, “You’re damn right it’s cold, and that woman over there is dying!” I went over to look for a moment at the woman he was referring to. Frail, dreadfully thin and gaunt, she was gripping the side rails of her bed so tight her knuckles were white. She was looking into the distance, her eyes full of fear, as though trying to prevent herself from falling. So difficult to imagine letting go, clutching beauty, holding on to life.

I walked the length of the ward checking the beds looking for my mother, and then the neighbouring ward. Eventually I sought the help of a nurse who led me back along the corridor to the woman with a white-knuckle grip on the rail.

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