ROY KERRIDGE AND THE RELATIVE MERITS OF MARXISM
Triumphs of Communism, Roy Kerridge, Custom Books, 2010
All novels are semi-autobiographical, although novelists will often demur and claim their characters are composites. But Roy Kerridge is unapologetic about plucking real people from his family’s past and serving them up for public degustation, with only the most cursory of disguises to differentiate fiction from family tree. There are dangers in such brazen borrowing – first, that the author’s surviving family might not appreciate such a blaze of halogen into their antecessors – but so strong-minded a clan is presumably inured to public attention.
The second peril is that the ancestors held up for us to examine coolly and from all angles may not appeal to us. This would be immaterial if the book’s purposes were either confessionalism or character assassination, designed for bulk purchase by viewers of Oprah Winfrey. But laundry-washing is not the purpose of the self-published Triumphs, which bears all the Kerridge trademarks of keen observation plus kindliness, impishness but also intelligence and countervailing compassion. Even where the author does not agree with what his forebears did, which is more often than not, he wants us to understand why they did it.
Reviewing so personal a book is also risky for reviewers who have a high regard for the author; there is always the possibility that they will inadvertently offend the author by misreading or failing to appreciate some cherished ancestor. So permit me to place on record here that I regard Roy Kerridge as a brilliantly off-beat thinker, writer and folklorist, a latter-day John Betjeman who is also eminently civilized and clubbable. I concur fully with the Salisbury Review that Kerridge is “a worthy successor to Defoe, Cobbett or Priestley”, and with the much-missed Michael Wharton that Kerridge is a “genius”.
I feel the need to make these prefatory remarks because try as I might I could not bring myself to admire a single one of the author’s relations, at least as they are portrayed in Triumphs. Even those who manifestly meant well I found at best annoying. The essential problem for me is that they were all more or less Marxists, some of them prominent Bolsheviki – and for someone who has never been drawn to socialism such a multi-generational tic seems at best perverse.
By far the most sympathetic figures are Adolf Frankel and his daughter Thea. (The author’s ancestors on one side of his family are vaguely east European Jewish – Adolf turns to Marxism mostly out of his “inherited fear of pogroms”.) These two appear to have been utterly good-hearted and well- adjusted, with a genuine desire to help others and improve the world. Yet even these two relative paragons are guilty of shocking political naivety and, in the case of Adolf, the grossest hypocrisy – given the choice of living in Middlesex or Moscow, he opts to continue preaching the wonders of Marxism from a comfortable villa in Wembley. Other relatives are simply atrocious – whether as aides to Trotsky and Parvus Helphand or mere domestic tyrants, like Adolf’s wife Magda, who comes across as being utterly without redeeming features. The only good thing about these progenitors is that through some inexplicable alchemy of genes-plus-history-plus-culture-plus-reaction- against-his-parents there has somehow resulted the incomparable Roy Kerridge, a blinking, balding, diminutive, dishevelled dispatcher of dragons and celebrant of the irrelevant and outmoded.
Kerridge has written and drawn cartoons for many publications, writing on a bewildering array of subjects in a direct and sometimes even childlike style (the loathly word “tummies” makes an appearance in Triumphs, as does “Up tails and away! was the rabbits’ motto”) that masks mischief and astuteness. Thus the Webb siblings were “preposterous”; thus the unsatisfactory nature of leftwing history, “in which things happened for no reason because wars and kings had been excluded”; thus the selfishness and treachery of many Marxian intellectuals; thus the incongruous intellectual nexus between “Bloomsbury and Free Love” and Stalin’s “Russian Paradise”, in which latter utopia floppy-hatted aristocratic ladies and bisexuality would have met with little encouragement.
This book makes abundantly clear that the Triumphs of Communism were not triumphs at all but trials, which not only harmed the world greatly (and are still harming the world) but also the author’s family, too many of whose members were soured and uprooted through obstinate adherence to nostrums as tedious as they were terrible, and as idiotic as they were almost inevitable for a transplanted Mitteleuropaïsch, middlebrow family during that period. (Old habits die hard amongst the Kerridges; his mother married again, this time a West African activist in thrall to an almost identical brand of socialism.)
There are too many miscellaneous insights and good descriptions to enumerate – such as the strange similarities between communism and capitalism, the advantages of grammar schools, what interwar England felt like, and the way in which Britain’s anti-communists were systematically if subtly excluded from influence. But most of all this is an enlightening enquiry into the roots and fruits of a family’s alienation from orthodoxies, including as a subtext the author’s own alienation from his family’s and society’s leftwing orthodoxies.
As a kind of genealogical Pilgrim’s Progress, and also because someone as unique as Roy Kerridge should not have to resort to self-publication, Triumphs of Communism merits the attention of all who wish to understand the fatal attraction of communism to so many talented people at a critical juncture in our history, whose ancient actions are still reverberating to our detriment.
This review was published in the Quarterly Review in Summer 2010