Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 9 February 2009
After more than 30 years of hoarding books, magazines, academic journals and newspaper clippings, I’ve decided to have a clear-out. I’m not going to get rid of any books – well, maybe a few duplicates – but everything else that can go will go. I can fit only two more bookcases into my house unless I let them take over the kitchen and the bathroom, and my cellar is so full of boxes that the electricity man had difficulty getting to the meter the other week. I really don’t need to hang on to 20 years’ worth of the Economist, because I can access it online or in the library; and I’m never going to look again at those mid-1980s issues of New Left Review that have now been stored in boxes for more than two decades.
Or at least that’s the theory. The problem with having a clear-out when you’ve let your hoarding get as out-of-control as I have is that it takes a vast amount of time and effort. First, you have to decide what goes – which is easy enough with the Economist and most of my clippings from the national press over the past ten years because all that stuff is available instantly online (at least as long as I have an academic job). But it gets more difficult the more obscure the publication becomes. Although I probably know a couple of people with, say, a complete run of Socialist Action, I’m wary of chucking out my collection just in case neither they nor the British Library or the Bodleian can locate a particular issue.
So clearing out also involves spending a lot of time reading and thinking. Is it worth keeping those tattered copies of Xtra!, the anarchist paper of the late 1970s, or the issue of Class War that was edited by Tribune’s current theatre critic, Aleks Sierz, 25 or so years ago? Yes, because the chances are high that Xtra! and Class War didn’t make it to the copyright libraries – and because they’re part of my own history. But what about the issue of the pro-Albanian Maoist Weekly Worker commemorating the death of Enver Hoxha? A worthless artefact with which I have no personal connection – but again yes, because it’s so weird. I have however decided not to keep Labour Weekly, the party’s official paper, or Sanity, the CND magazine, or most of my Fabian pamphlets.
Which brings me to the second problem: disposal. I currently have a vast pile of paper I have decided I don’t want any more, and I’m not sure what to do with it. The newspaper clippings have already gone into the recycling bin, but the rest is a headache. Some of it I can flog to a specialist secondhand dealer, and some I’ll give to local charity shops. But what about the 1,000 or so copies of the Economist? It seems a waste to put them in the bin – and I can’t put them all in it at once – but who the hell would want them and be prepared to collect? I really can’t be arsed with ebay…
The great thing about having a clear-out, of course, is what you turn up unexpectedly. I’d completely forgotten that I had such a large collection of articles and pamphlets on the split in the Communist Party in the mid-1980s over the miners’ strike and the Soviet Union – and I was surprised to find a box full of embarrassingly craven British and American left praise for the Sandinistas in Nicaragua from the same era.
What has really stopped me short, however, is the Labour material from the late 1970s and early 1980s. The sense of desperation and panic in the party between the IMF crisis of 1976 and the end of the miners’ strike in 1985 – through the Winter of Discontent, the Tory election victory of 1979, the slump that followed it, the defection of the SDP, the Falklands War, the debacle of the 1983 election, the miners’ strike itself – is palpable in every article I clipped and every pamphlet I saved. Labour hung on under Michael Foot and rebuilt itself under Neil Kinnock, but it was touch-and-go for at least five years.
I know it’s not done to wonder what happens if we lose in 2010 – and I still think Labour can win because I’m less pessimistic about the economic downturn than everyone else and believe the Tories can be exposed for the hopeless reactionaries that they are. But Labour’s bleak midwinter this past month is horribly reminiscent of 1979, and I’ve got a feeling in my bones that the party will be in opposition within 18 months. And awful as it was after 1979, there was a lot more energy and enthusiasm around Labour then than there is now. Be afraid, deliver those leaflets – and pray.