Thursday December 13 2012

James May: Rebel with the megaphone voice

James May: November 5 1969 - December 3 2012.

I 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).

The 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.

However, 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.

Showing 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 instinctively disliked.

James 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.

I 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.

Naturally, 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 his father.

James 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).

In 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.

He 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.

Against 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.

Class 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.

Being 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.

James 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 dyslexia.

I 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.

Over 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.

Without James the world has become a greyer place.


James May- Remembered by John Bridge


The 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.

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