Stalin on the Mantelpiece: The Behans in London

Ruth Behan as a girl with her father, Brian Behan
BRENDAN BEHAN’S NIECE RUTH REFLECTS IN THIS MEMOIR, FROM THE BOOK COMMON PEOPLE, ON GROWING UP WORKING CLASS IN ENGLAND

I liked the prefab the first time we went there. At that time, I knew I was quite wonderful, especially as I was wearing a complete suit of white fur fabric that Grandma had made.

She and my mother were inspecting the prefab, as it seemed that my mother and father and I were to live there. Mum looked unconvinced but Grandma was encouraging. In the centre of the living room was a square of lino printed to resemble a piece of carpet and this would save a lot of money, she said. A great big space to run around in my fine suit was what I thought.

There was a set of drawers and a cupboard cunningly built into the wall with handles exactly right for climbing up – especially if you ran fast at the wall first. How crazy grown-up people are – they told me I must not do this because the council would not allow it. That’s the sort of thing I had to put up with – grown-ups thinking they could overrule my ideas all the time.

A good part of the trouble was really caused by Achy and Smelly, because the two women persisted in the belief that things Achy and Smelly did were in fact done by me. Even when we were on the bus and I pointed out the street where Achy and Smelly lived, Mum and Grandma continued in this belief and seemed to think it was funny.

I could do what I liked with the garden because gardening was bourgeois and gardening tools were a waste of money. Anyway, our father spent all day digging and hod-carrying, so gardening had no appeal for him

Soon after that, we did move to the prefab and enjoy its other wonders – a gas fridge, a table that folded down out of the wall, a wooden draining board, a terrifying toilet and a garden where a bomb had dropped in the war. It had bold concrete paths and a wealth of rockery from broken bricks and concrete. Most people in south London had big rockeries in those days – sometimes the bricks had a blackened and melted look, which was creepy. I could do what I liked with the garden because gardening was bourgeois and gardening tools were a waste of money. Anyway, our father spent all day digging and hod-carrying, so gardening had no appeal for him.

The walls of the prefab were asbestos sheets covered in a gritty paint called distemper, which was also a thing dogs got, so maybe that was why it continually peeled off the walls, very tempting to help it on its way, likewise the covering of the little pulling-down table in the kitchen where we sat to have our meals. The Fablon covering this had a pattern of gay Chianti bottles and cocktail glasses, but if you cut bread on it and didn’t use a breadboard, it would cut right through and show the brown stickiness beneath it. But I only harmed it once and then I was sorry because it seemed to be saying something about things that were nice that you could get once you were grown up.

One day I was playing under this table and noticed a very lifelike doll in a nice dress sitting there, so I gave it a shake to see if it would fall over. Or perhaps actually it was Achy and Smelly who did that, because it turns out that was my sister and you must not do that to sisters. Even though I had never been consulted about having a sister, it later turned out she was something of an advantage – not least to keep me company when our mother and father had their rows. The rows were frequent and unpleasant. How annoying it is when you have been given to believe the two parents you live with were admirable people and then you hear them each declaring the other to be thoroughly bad in every way? All Dad’s friends and Mum’s relatives were very bad people as well, so it seemed.

Ruth Behan’s father, Brian Behan, when he first arrived in England
Ruth Behan’s father, Brian Behan, when he first arrived in England

You can’t really play when all this is going on. You just have to be in your bedroom listening to it all and trying to work out when it’s safe to come out and work out which of them was winning that time, thinking, “Oh, she’s crying now – that could work – oh yes, he’s said he’s sorry, that looks hopeful... Oh no, now she’s remembered some other bad things he did a while back - now it’s all off again; now he is shouting about Your Mother’s Effing Tatie Hash!!!”

After a miserable hour or two, they would leave off and seemed to calm down and went off to their bedroom to have a lie-down. You must especially not go into the room or knock on the door to ask for anything or they would shout at you in an extremely cross voice. They would not explain this, though. Which was odd, because most generally grown-ups explain things whether you want to hear about it or not.

When they were not having a row, they were cheerful and would laugh and sing. Dad sang about Brave Father Murphy who stirred up the rocks with a Warning Cry, and the Bold Fenian Men, the Yeoman Captain with Fiery Glare and Joe Hill who is Alive as You or Me, and the best one was the rousing Avanti o Popolo alla Riscossa Evviva il Socialismo e la Libertà. These songs would cheer you up no end – all about bad people and how you had to fight them. The bad people were Parasites, Capitalists, Bourgeois Intellectuals and Effing de Valera.

Ruth Behan as a girl with her father, Brian Behan
Ruth Behan as a girl with her father, Brian Behan

Our mother would sometimes sing these songs, but also other interesting songs like My Tiny Hand is Frozen and They Call me Mimi Though I Know Not Why and I’m Just a Girl Who Can’t Say No and Anything You Can Do I Can Do Better.

Dad was a tall, handsome, red-haired Irish man and Mum was very beautiful. She was also totally fearless in managing the terrifying pressure cooker that had matchsticks for a safety valve and only exploded if you weren’t careful. From this unexploded bomb she produced fine stews and boiled bacon and hissing clouds of steam. When the clouds of steam died down you knew it was safe to come out from under the table. Also, rows were never at dinner time. No one with any sense has a row when food is on the table.

There was not much furniture or stuff in the house at that time, most things were a waste of money, but there was no need to worry too much because the Revolution was coming and then everything would be much better.

Dad would come at night and sit over the little stove for such a very long time as if he would never get warm again. He went all over London armed with only his trusty A to Z, working on jobs and organising to get better safety conditions

There was a little stove in the living room to burn coal and stuff on. My sister and I had the job of cleaning that. We had quite a few jobs because if you don’t work that means you are a Parasite like the very Fat Man who waters the Workers’ Beer.

Dad would come at night and sit over the little stove for such a very long time as if he would never get warm again. He would smoke a cigarette down to the very last bit - holding it like you would to take a pinch of salt. He went all over London armed with only his trusty A to Z, working on various jobs and organising to get better safety conditions.

There were some curious objects did appear and they came as presents from Comrades in faraway places. Dad had been there for a thing called a delegation, and Mum had been to one of the places where she said they had soup with a lot of fat floating on top. There was a green-and-white bedspread woven from scratchy wool, some boxes decorated with little burned-on designs (so many of these that all our relatives had them too). From China came a satin dressing gown for Mum, which had been golden except the colours had run in the wash. I longed to see it in its original state. Above the little stove was a mantelpiece and on this was an inkwell with a pen and the head of Trotsky and a white plaster bust of Stalin. You might be shocked to hear this, but people in those days still spoke about Stalin as Uncle Joe Stalin who had met up with Churchill and helped us win the war.

People still spoke about Stalin as Uncle Joe Stalin, who had helped us win the second World War. Photograph: Mikhail Japaridze/Tass/Getty
People still spoke about Stalin as Uncle Joe Stalin, who had helped us win the second World War. Photograph: Mikhail Japaridze/Tass/Getty

At times, more Comrades would come round for discussions or socials. The discussions were very interesting to me because they were all about the bad people that had to be got rid of (though not much was said of Effing de Valera and the people who shot James Connolly when he was tied to a chair). Much was made of the Parasites, Capitalists and Bourgeoisie. And as it turned out there were more layers to this. Capitalists were bad and they had everything worked out to be in their favour because they had the Capitalist System. Bourgeois was bad but ‘Petty Bourgeois’ was even worse. Proletarians were good but some of them had all the wrong ideas so they were Lumpen Proletarians.

Likewise, Intellectuals were good but could become Bourgeois Intellectuals, which was bad, or Effing Intellectuals, which meant they had jobs that didn’t involve bricks or concrete or being out in the freezing cold. Some of the Comrades did easy jobs and had posh houses, so might be Effing Intellectuals, but calling them that would be a deadly insult, so they were only called that when they weren’t actually there. The discussions often ended in people becoming angry, especially if the people were related to each other. It seemed like the closer related you were, the more the danger of things going wrong and the dreaded Bourgeois insult being used.

However, the socials were jolly affairs, with laughing and music, and grown-ups didn’t get up till late on the day after, so my sister and I could drink some of the orange cordial that was left around. Women always drank gin and orange in those days – we had the luxury of drinking the orange without mixing it with water, and savouring the luxurious sweet, tangy taste.

One time, a radiogram appeared for a few weeks and a record of a black man called Leadbelly singing about the Rock Island Line. I was fascinated by this and it seemed to me the best bit of music I ever heard. I pestered my mum to explain it all to me – the man was cleverly tricking someone about what he had on his train. You couldn’t really work out if the man was a Capitalist or not, but I loved the music and wondered where you could get more of it from.

Brian Behan at a bar in June 1963. Photograph: Bob Haswell/Hulton/Getty
Brian Behan at a bar in June 1963. Photograph: Bob Haswell/Hulton/Getty

The way of getting rid of the Capitalist System was by strikes and Dad was very good at these because he was not a Bourgeois Intellectual. The pay and conditions of the building trade were extremely bad at that time because unions were not allowed then in the building trade. If anyone had any strikes going on, Dad would go and help them, and sometimes take me with him. The men on the building sites treated him with evident respect and did not argue like relatives and Comrades did. They did not say Brian in an exasperated voice like Mum and Grandma did. With them, he seemed very serious and did not burst into mad poems or fragments of old songs like he did at home. Men seemed eager to hear what he had to say. He was put on a blacklist, which made us very poor indeed.

May Day was always a big march in those days – you didn’t have the day off like you do now, so marching on May Day was a sign for all the Comrades and Trade Unionists to get together and say things had to be changed. One cold bright spring day, Dad took me to this and carried me on his shoulders amid all the furling embroidered Trade Union banners. At Trafalgar Square, I was amazed to see him climb up to beside the lions and speak to the huge crowd of people who listened to him and cheered afterward. Who would have thought there were such a lot of people who did not think he was silly and funny and only came to England with two pairs of old socks and some black-and-white pudding?

One day my mother told me I was to go to school. She seemed very pleased with the idea but I could not see the need for it at all. She said I would have to go whether I liked it or not because if I didn’t, she and Dad would be put in prison. So I thought I had better agree to go, but with foreboding, because how nice could it be if you had to be made to go there or else your relatives were put in prison? How right I was – the teachers in those days did even more shouting than Mum and Dad, and frequently turned violent and beat boys with wooden rulers on their hands and legs.

We must be obedient because God said so, but this made no sense because of course there isn’t a God, so how could he see us, and anyway I was already being obedient

You could never be sure what would set them off, either, and they loved to get the whole lot of us together in the hall and get very angry and tell us off, even if only a few children had done the bad thing. We must be obedient because God said so, but this made no sense because of course there isn’t a God, so how could he see us, and anyway I was already being obedient. Then we had to pray with our heads bowed and our eyes shut and this put me in a really bad quandary.

If I did do what they told us, I would be a hypocrite and hypocrites were like the Bourgeoisie and the song said Let Cowards Flinch and Traitors Sneer. But what if the teachers noticed I had my eyes open and wasn’t saying the words? Who knows what they might do if I went against them? I compromised by bowing my head but keeping my eyes open, but I felt like a traitor to myself and yet still fearful. To comfort myself, I reasoned that if the teachers could see me, they must have their eyes open when they should have them shut, but I thought teachers were capable of anything, so I worried about that very much for the next seven years or so.

Mind you, this was nothing compared with what happened to Angelina Cuthbert. She was one of the children who sometimes smelled of wee. Some days we had to do Agility, which meant taking off most of your clothes and jumping off special things with leather tops onto spiky coconut mats. Or else it would be Music and Movement, which meant running around pretending to be something and then stopping suddenly exactly when the teacher told you to.

In order to do this, the teacher told us it was very important to tuck your vest into your knickers; Angelina had an extremely long vest on one day and absolutely would not tuck it into her knickers. After about the third time of telling her off, the teacher grabbed her and I thought she was going to get a big smack, but instead of smacking her, the teacher suddenly hustled her out of the hall. Gradually the dreadful meaning sunk in – poor Angelina had been sent to school with no knickers. To my surprise, it seemed the teachers gave her some knickers from somewhere and did not shout at her, so maybe there were limits to their inhumanity.

After a year or two, I began to get used to school. In time, my sister was also made to go there, so it was seemingly the fate of all children and the only way out of it was to grow up, so I decided to do that as quickly as I could. Pretty soon, adults started to praise me for being “very grown up” so maybe you could get to be grown up quicker if you tried hard enough.

The Comrades still came round, but not too often. A dog-eared booklet with a sheet of red paper as a cover appeared and seemed to tell of something very bad. Grown-ups discussed it in a serious way, no raised voices, no speeches, no songs, no more gin and orange and beer. Then there were mutterings about the mysterious OGPU, which was more dreadful than any of the other bad people.

Seamus and Brian Behan in 1997, at the launch of a book about their brother, Brendan Behan: A Life, by Michael O’Sullivan. Photograph: Cyril Byrne
Seamus and Brian Behan in 1997, at the launch of a book about their brother, Brendan Behan: A Life, by Michael O’Sullivan. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

One day I came back from school and by the back door was Stalin. Someone had taken him off the mantelpiece and smashed him to bits on the concrete path. I ran to Dad to tell him. He was sitting with his head in his hands, weeping. His face was red and crumpled and he shouted at me angrily in unfamiliar, ugly words. I was frightened but I knew what to do by then – I would have to figure out what had happened to Stalin on my own – yes, that would be more grown up.

What do people do when Superman turns out to be Lex Luthor? My father, to his credit, did not turn to drink – not at that time, anyway, but there was no more singing for a while, no more Bandiera Rossa. Trotsky kept his place on the mantelpiece for a few months, and then began to move about the prefab, eventually ending up on the floor with a big chip out of where the inkwell should have been.

Dad bought a typewriter and began writing, and miraculously got money for what he wrote. Mum got some booklets from the Rapid Results College and bought new clothes. Dad’s brother got famous by writing and teachers started being extra-nice to me. And best of all, one glorious and wonderful day Dad said we were going to get a dog.

This essay is from Common People: An Anthology of Working-Class Writers, edited by Kit de Waal (Unbound, £9.99); read our review of the book here

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