James May: Rebel with the megaphone voice
James May: November 5 1969 - December 3 2012.
knew James throughout his life. He was born during the same year I
joined the Young Communist League. I soon got to know his parents,
Tom and Rosemary May, who were both active members of the Communist
Party. James was the eldest of three (he had a sister, Harriet, and a
brother, Oliver, as well as a half-brother, Matthew Johnson). If
memory serves me right, he was named after James Connolly, the great
Scottish-Irish revolutionary socialist (Harriet after Harry Pollitt
and Oliver after the Lord Protector himself).
May household in Luton’s Lewsey Farm was gloriously chaotic, full
of children, trade union militants, political work and almost
permanent debate. That was the background in which James grew up and,
hence, it was no surprise that he became a member of the YCL in 1983.
as mapped out in the pages of The Leninist, by this
time ‘official communism’ was in terminal decline. The
Eurocommunists around Marxism Today dominated the CPGB and
YCL. But a bitter factional war broke out when they attempted to take
over the Morning Star and downgrade trade union work in favour
of the ghastly politics that eventually morphed into New Labour.
the cowardly mindset of the Eurocommunists and their bureaucratic
allies, objections were raised to James being allowed to join. Even
at the age of 14 he was a revolutionary and already spoke with a
megaphone voice. His dress sense was equally outrageous (and
enduring). James identified with punk and its ‘fuck off’,
anti-establishment attitudes. Someone, therefore, that
Eurocommunists, wishy-washy feminists and dull reformists
gravitated towards The Leninist faction of the CPGB.
Undoubtedly, what attracted him was not the finer points of our
theoretical outlook. No, it was our unashamed revolutionary politics,
our vitriolic hatred of the Eurocommunists and the withering
criticism meted out to the Morning Star, Straight Left,
New Communist Party, Communist Liaison and the other ‘official
communist’ factions. That and, perhaps, our attitude towards the
Soviet Union. Where without exception the ‘official communists’
lauded Mikhail Gorbachev, our paper called for a political revolution
and working class democracy.
vividly remember James holding aloft the big red banner we paraded
outside the final congress of the ‘official’ CPGB in 1991.
“Communism lives” and “Provisional Central Committee of the
CPGB”, it defiantly read. The Eurocommunists were intent on
abandoning the CPGB name and changing themselves into the Democratic
Left (formally dissolved in 1999). We were intent on reclaiming the
CPGB name and building a genuine Marxist party.
James attended many of our meetings, including one of our schools in
the Mediterranean (it might have been on Corfu). He was though, he
confided, unhappy, frustrated and looking around for a new political
terrain. Frankly, I encouraged him. Life is too short to devote
oneself to a political project that does not challenge you, stretch
you and fulfil you. When, later, he told me that he was going to join
the anarchistic Class War group, I actually thought he was doing the
right thing … and told him so. Not only could he potentially grow
politically; he was moving away from the considerable shadow cast by
and myself often came across each other over the subsequent years. On
demonstrations, of course; at Community University sometimes; bumping
into each other in Camden Town - me usually shopping, him usually
heading off to a punk gig or a drink with mates; and on social
occasions too. I attended his wedding. And James never stopped
reading our paper. He contributed to the letters pages under the name
of John Walsh (but under more exotic names on occasion).
Class War James seems to have made a real impact. It is easy to
understand why. Tall, striking blonde hair (sometimes spiked up into
a mohican) and, more than that, he had a pretty well worked out set
of politics … in a milieu noted for its woeful philistinism this
made him different.
quickly earned the nickname, ‘Captain Bollocks’. Never slow to
make his opinions known in the bluntest terms - eg, “That’s a
load of …” - James loathed the so-called political correctness of
middle class radicals and the reformist left. And, whatever you
thought about what James was saying, you knew that he meant it.
Doubtless this won him enemies, but it also won him many friends.
those who wanted to close down Class War he united with those
determined to maintain it. James insisted that Class War should be
Class War ... and those who did not like it should leave. There was a
bitter split between the London and Leeds wings of the organisation.
And it was the Londoners who were responsible for editing the
relaunched Class War. James, however, was no writer: he
suffered from dyslexia. Nevertheless, many of his ideas, along with
his vicious sense of humour, found their way into its pages.
War was an easy sell on the streets and on demonstrations. The
organisation and the paper benefited from being something of a media
cliché in the 1980s. But the project never got anywhere. Class War
always remaining a tiny sect, amongst many rival tiny sects.
a free spirit, James was ready to try a new orientation. He was one
of the few, if not the only comrade, from that background to become
involved in the Socialist Alliance (in the late 1990s it united six
of Britain’s leftwing organisations, including the Socialist
Workers Party, Socialist Party in England and Wales, Alliance for
Workers’ Liberty and the CPGB). Because of James and other Luton
oppositionists, I got invited to speak to the Luton branch of the SA.
The SWP were there in force … and deeply uncomfortable with the
rough and tumble of debate with those to their left. I remember James
giving them a ear-bashing over their moralistic attempt to get
Bernard Manning banned.
variously worked as a milkman, a post office driver and for meals on
wheels, as well as caring full-time for Lillith Scarlett and Harry
Spartacus, his two children. Though he never held down a job for
long, he decided to take a place at Northampton University in order
to become a junior school teacher. He focused in particular on
mathematics, a field he found almost effortless. James got a 2.1
degree - a fantastic achievement, especially if you consider his
always thought that James would make a brilliant teacher. When you
saw him with his two kids, it was clear that he would have been an
inspirational and much loved figure. But with his refusal to hold his
tongue, his fruity language, his contempt for political correctness,
it was never going to be. He failed his assessment, which basically
finished any thoughts of a career in education.
the last two or three years James became depressively ill. Often he
behaved in an utterly irrational fashion too. He was still under
treatment when he committed suicide.
James the world has become a greyer place.
James May- Remembered by John
funeral is on Tuesday December 18 at 1.45pm: Luton Crematorium, The
Vale, Butterfield Green, Stopsley, Luton LU2 8DD. A wake will be held
at The Moat House, Moat Lane, Luton LU3 1UU.