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Growing up Communist in post-War Britain must have been a strange experience. David Aaronovitch, now a columnist for The Times and soft-left supporter of Britain’s recent foreign military interventions, was immersed in Communism from his birth in 1954.

David’s father Sam was a full-time organiser for the party and his mother Lavender an ardent member. His childhood friends were children of fellow Communists. He went to socialist Sunday school. His babysitter, dentist and doctor were all party members. When his parents needed work done to their home they would turn to a party builder or architect. This reliance on party members led to work being done cheaply — they always offered a discount to fellow Communists — but not necessarily well. The party builder, when repairing the garden shed, killed off Mrs Aaronovitch’s beloved honeysuckle. Only when there was a falling out with the party dentist did David discover that other practitioners used local anaesthetic.

David’s parents followed very different paths to Communism. Sam’s own parents were Jews from near Vilnius, then in the Russian empire, who came to Britain in the early years of the 20th century. Like many others, they settled in east London and lived a life of grinding poverty. When David’s grandmother died in Dalston in 1969 she still spoke very little English, conversing almost entirely in Yiddish. Sam rejected his parents’ Judaism, seeing it as mere superstition, and gravitated towards the Communist Party. In 1934, aged 14, he joined the Young Communist League. A year later he left school with very little in the way of qualifications. Work eventually took him to Glasgow. He laboured there in the Rolls-Royce engine works until leaving in 1942 to take up a full-time party position, propaganda secretary for the Scottish Communists. He would remain in the party’s employ until 1967.

Back in London and ensconced in the party’s Covent Garden offices, Sam was given responsibility for culture. Doris Lessing, who encountered Sam when she had become a party member in the late 1940s, described him in her memoirs as “lean, stern, military in style, with the grim sardonic humour of the times. He had been a very poor boy from the East End. The Young Communist League had been his education but not his nursery, because he was a Jew and one of the people of the book.” She went on: “Why had the party chosen a young man who had read nothing of modern literature, and was not interested in the arts, to represent culture?” 

David points out that while Lessing was right about his father’s lack of interest in modern literature, “By the time he met Lessing . . . he had read Goethe, Schiller, Dickens, Tolstoy, Cervantes, Balzac and Shelley. He had taught himself German and some Russian.” Sam appears, as “Comrade Bill”, in The Golden Notebook, pehaps Lessing’s best-known novel. 

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Anonymous
January 3rd, 2016
5:01 PM
Oh horrors, a builder killed a honeysuckle!! Must be an evil communist...

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