My previous blog’s dip into the deep waters of higher education has reminded me of my own undergraduate days in the 1970s. At 18, barely out of short trousers, I relocated from safe suburban Cardiff to the rough, tough Mile End Road, a fresher at Queen Mary College, London. I might as well have had a sign hanging round my neck saying “GULLIBLE WELSH IDIOT: FEEL FREE TO EXPLOIT”, so uninformed was I about the ways of the world, much less the East End of London. Although I was savvy enough to accomplish the single most important task of freshers’ week: collect that grant cheque. Yes, my children, those were the days when there was such a thing as GRANTS!!
Cheque banked, I could concentrate on what mattered to me: riding the Circle Line all day (Cardiff had nothing like it!). The very last thing I wanted to do was any studying. For the first time in my life there was nobody to tell me what to do and where to be. The taste of freedom was intoxicating: it didn’t enter my head to bother with any boring lectures. Now and then I would put in an appearance at the Economics building in Bow Road, just to show face, pick up lecture notes, borrow essays and bullshit my easy-going tutor. She knew I was set on my own trajectory and wouldn’t take her advice anyway.
One day I was in the Bow Road foyer when Peter Hain swept past with his entourage. I recognised him because, at the time, he was a bit of a hero to lefty students like myself for his leading role in the anti-apartheid movement. Demonised in the rightwing press, the President of the Young Liberals was then an inspiring radical who took on the powerful – light years from the conniving conservative we know today. I quaked in awe before his presence. Little did I know it, but our paths were destined to cross again, and again, and again…
A couple of years later, I was living in a squat in Putney (yes, my children, those were the days when you could have a whole house for FREE!!). I forget precisely who and how many of us occupied that huge, Victorian neo-gothic pile near East Putney tube station, probably due to the industrial quantities of Grade A hallucinogens being devoured daily, but I do have hazy recollections of an Italian Marxist, a South African hippy couple plus child, a Dutch cannabis smuggler, an Irish bass player, an Argentinian seamstress, a Jamaican rastafarian, an American computer programmer, a Brummie drag queen and a Cockney fraudster among the continually changing inhabitants. I fitted in thanks to my Welshness, which conferred a patina of exotic otherness I didn’t actually possess. People had been defining me as Welsh since my first day in London and, by osmosis, it became my main identifier in a way it never had when I was growing up in Wales. And so it was that “CYMRU RHYDD!” was daubed in red high on the Winthorpe Road railway arches, to cause Putney folk to double-take for decades until gradually fading into the London ether.
One night everyone gathered to talk about the arrest of Peter Hain earlier that day for a bank robbery just around the corner at the Putney branch of Barclays. To us countercultural warriors it was obviously a fit-up: boycotting Barclays was a central plank of the anti-apartheid campaign Hain led, and the apartheid state’s notorious secret police, BOSS, were capable of anything. It was then that someone noticed the absence of the lovely, hippy-dippy South African couple (plus baby). They were nowhere to be found, their room had been emptied, they were never seen again. Come to think of it, the guy bore a remarkable resemblance to Peter Hain…
This extraordinary attempt, organised by BOSS in cahoots with the Met Police, to frame Hain by using a look-alike failed when he was acquitted at the Old Bailey. The years rolled by. Hain switched to Labour, where he initially positioned himself on the left of the party, and retained credibility for his pivotal role in forming the Anti-Nazi League. Embarked on a determinedly low-achieving course, I was by then a bus conductor who one time was attacked by three NF lads at Acton Green because I wore Anti-Nazi League badges.
Hain couldn’t dislodge the Tories in Putney. He needed to get nominated for a safe Labour seat to fulfill his ambition to get into parliament. Enter Wales, the traditional refuge for big-hitting British Labour politicians seeking a guaranteed majority ever since Keir Hardie (1856-1915). When Neath MP Donald Coleman (1925-1991) died unexpectedly, Hain’s still-extant socialism, practised fluency and high public profile persuaded the local party to award him the nomination. He duly won the by-election and has been Neath MP for these past 21 years and counting.
Meanwhile, my wild roving had brought me back to Wales – the calls of hiraeth and all that. I’m aware this is going to sound incredibly arrogant, but Wales needed me – like it always needs every divergent, sceptical, critical, engaged, independent voice it can muster. In the 1997 referendum, in which the question was effectively “Should Wales exist – yes or no?”, the Yes Campaign was led by Peter Hain, finally in government with New Labour. Down on the ground, in deepest Sir Gâr, I must have persuaded around 30-40 individuals who otherwise would have voted ‘no’ or not voted at all to vote ‘yes’. The referendum was won by 6,721 votes. In other words if just 3,361 ‘yes’ voters had voted ‘no’ the referendum would have been lost. Allowing for each of the people I persuaded to persuade a few others themselves, and working the numbers exponentially from there, I calculate that it only took three ‘Dic Mortimer’ types to swing the whole bloody vote! You see, my children: you can make a difference. And, getting back to my theme here, once more Peter Hain and I had moved in symbiosis.
There’s more. I’m a fairly frequent spectator at Neath FC matches at The Gnoll, where I’ve spied club President Peter Hain a couple of times. Given there’s only a few thousand people across Wales who go to Welsh Premier League games, it’s another link of note, and next time I see him there I’m determined to approach him and say something suitably portentous and cryptic before his minders can beat me up, BOSS-style.
Now it’s 2012 and Peter Hain’s autobiography Outside In (£20) is in the book shops (I can’t better John Crace’s demolition in The Guardian – see www.guardian.co.uk/books/2012/feb/12/digested-read-outside-in?INTCMP=SRCH). Dripping his trademark Cuprinol-basted self-satisfaction, the book is taking up space in the non-fiction racks that should be occupied by my tome, expected out at the same time but still languishing in the editorial suite (we have got to maps, photos and illustrations though, so there is light at the end of the tunnel). Admittedly, this connection is flimsy to the point of non-existence – but a gossamer thread is there. Here’s an idea for the editor of the Western Mail: get Peter Hain to do the hatchet job on my book when it’s published. He’s got abundant spare time as he’s only Shadow Secretary of State for Wales nowadays and, who knows, it might slightly boost circulation. And yet another layer could be added to the strange intertwining story, begun long ago and far away, of me and the future Baron Hain of Castell-Nedd.