Sunday, February 6, 2011

Dinner seating made me a lefty

In December I gave the background to my involvement in the Garden House affair of 1970.

If you’ve read the Cambridge University magazine (CAM) article that’s linked there, you’ll see I'm quoted as saying “It was the first demonstration I’d been on – I was pretty useless. But I had struck up a friendship with Gottfried Ensslin, probably the only left-wing student in St John’s, and he made it his mission to tutor me in the ways of righteousness. This demo came up and he said we should go.”

A chance event

That is indeed pretty much the way it was. Except for one detail: I don’t actually remember telling the journalist I was pretty useless, but we'll let that one go.

The Hall of St Johns College in 1885.
Little changed in the next 85 years. 
Which leads me to ruminate on the place that chance plays in our lives. Because I can put my friendship with Gottfried down to a single chance event, of no apparent significance at the time.  It was the decision of where to sit down to dinner on my first night at Cambridge.  The venue was the Hall of St Johns College, along with a couple of hundred other students.  It happened that I chose to join a group of half a dozen others who were obviously new like me. And as a consequence of sitting together that night this little group formed a bond which persisted many months, indeed to some extent, for the next three years.  There will have been numerous such groups on that first night, I have no doubt, and for no particular reason I chose this one. Which happened to include Gottfried. And our friendship developed from there.  It's not too fanciful to say that had I sat anywhere else that night, my life would have turned out entirely different.  No Garden House, no prison, no left wingery, no housing officer job in York, no union convenor.

St Johns was noted for being a right wing college.  Besides Gottfried, I was not aware of any other lefties there.  It’s a large college too; so but for those accidental seating arrangements on the first night, it’s entirely possible that Gottfried and I would not have found our paths crossing.  As it was, we had many long conversations about politics, my starting point being what I should now call a mild version of social democracy.

In our second year Gottfried and I shared rooms.  It was during this year that the demo took place.  Travel agents had, with astonishing insensitivity, got together to promote tourism to Greece.  At the time, a very distressed and oppressed country.  Gottfried was extremely exercised about the whole business, and attended several of the pickets outside travel agents that were staged during “Greek Week”, of which the Garden House dinner was the culmination.  I recall we spoke at length during the week about the issues involved, and by Friday I was fully convinced that the Garden House demo was the place I ought to be that night.  Little did I know what I was letting myself in for.

I should like to be able to say that I had a proper grasp of all the issues when I attended that demonstration, but I know that in the opinion of my friends at Cambridge at the time, I didn’t.  They all thought that Gottfried had led me by the nose.

Lets hold that thought, while I pinpoint one other accidental fact, over which I had no control, and which can plausibly be said to have determined the course of my life.  Eight of us from the demonstration were imprisoned, and of these, six spent the first few months of our sentences at Wormwood Scrubs.  We were in what was known as the allocation wing.  This was a staging post before being allocated to other prisons to serve the major part of our sentences.  I was at Wormwood Scrubs for the two months of July and August 1970, and spent the remaining four at Northeye, a semi-open prison outside Bexhill, Sussex. My prison number was 085856. That has just popped into my head as I write this.  But back to the allocation wing at Wormwood Scrubs.  The regime was three to a cell, slopping out, and confined for 23 hours a day. On Sundays 23½ hours.  There was half an hour’s exercise each day (yes just like in the movies) and another 30 minutes for slopping out and collecting meals.  But on Sundays, no exercise.
Wormwood Scrubs Prison
(not a view I ever saw)
My prison education

Now I said there were 6 of us in the allocation wing at Wormwood Scrubs.  And for reasons I am not aware of, three of the six were dispersed in cells with ordinary criminals (you’ll have to forgive the expression) and three were accommodated together in one cell. I was one of these lucky three, together with Rod Caird and Brian Williams.  Both of whom, unlike me, were committed leftwing activists, and willingly took my education in hand, ordering the right books for me to read. Marx, Engels and Lenin figured prominently in the list of authors, along with Gramsci, and works of modern history.  E H Carr’s history of the Russian Revolution was one.

23 hours a day provided limitless opportunity for seminars on all this material.  And I was a strongly motivated learner.  I desired to know in what way my incarceration was not a mere accident but part of the trajectory of human history. And to be able to have an answer to those on the outside who were saying “pity about Peter, he was just in the wrong place at the wrong time”.  It was important for me to be able to say that, on the contrary, I was in the right place at the right time.

Which I firmly believe I was.

But I wouldn't like to predict the outcome had I had different cellmates for those two summer months in 1970.  So that’s the other accidental fact which can be said to have determined the rest of my life.

A resonant phrase

Just one more thing, I see from the CAM article that in a letter to the Cambridge Evening News, in the immediate aftermath of the demonstration, I wrote : “our anger outside the hotel was more justified than the complacency of the diners”.  A resonant phrase, of which I can be justly proud!  Or could be, had I written it.  I have no memory of this letter and so can only go by my what my gut tells me. And my gut tells me that someone else may have been holding the pen! Still and whatever, I have the credit for it now.


  1. Speaking as prisoner 085851 (we were obviously all in a single sequence of serial numbers), I wish I felt entitled to your compliments about the quality of our jail-time seminars. What I recall most vividly was that we devised between us a version of three-handed Bridge, which helped while away all those hours.... Rod

  2. Fascinating once again Pete. Do you have a clear memory of all of this or do bits come back to you when you write about it? Did you keep in touch with all the others? How did your family react, both to the events and your subsequently becoming actively political on the left-wing? Did you go back to Cambridge or did they expel you (seems likely)? How did your less fortunate fellow students get on sharing cells with strangers?

  3. These are all good questions Noggin, will address them in another post. It will take me a few weeks to put my thoughts in order. Peter

  4. What nationality is Gottfried Ensslin? I wonder how Gottfried's life would have turned out if it weren't for you. Would he have found someone else in this "right wing college" who was open to his views? Would he have been able to stick both to his own beliefs, and to his Cambridge education if it weren't for you?

  5. I notice this extract from the Cambridge magazine article

    “Then studying on a British Council scholarship, the 24-year-old Ensslin was a veteran of student activism in West Germany. Today, he is amused at Household’s tribute. “I take that as a great compliment,” he says. “But yes, I had taken part in many actions, many demonstrations. I had been at Heidelberg, which was at the centre of the protest movement in Germany.”

    I would say that as we travel through life, people and events don’t always influence each other symmetrically. I suspect this one was something of a one-way process.