It’s difficult to know where to begin with Ken. The character me and my friends knew was probably semi-unrecognisable from the anarcho-syndicalist legend of 1980s London, although we knew he was in there. I met him around 2007, as I was finishing school, having fallen into a new group of friends with his son and daughter. They warned me he would be hard to communicate with or understand when I first went to their house - I already knew about both his heroin addiction and his past in politics. They were right – he was friendly, but came across hyper and half-mad. For all the world it looked much more like speed than heroin to me – the drug seemed to affect him differently. I disappeared upstairs and didn’t think too much about him, beyond that he seemed nice, and that his manner was pretty much exactly what I’d been told to expect.
Over time I had bits of conversation with him – he’d be singing a song around the house that I recognised and we’d talk a bit about it. Eventually, by chance, we’d catch each other in a moment where he was calm. At that time I was waking up on Saturday mornings to sell trotskyist newspapers. I remember him slumped on the sofa, seemingly asleep, and suddenly saying to me “You’re a hero”.
“What?” I said.
“You’re selling the wrong papers”, he grinned. “But you’re a hero”.
He had more and more moments where he was calm as time went by. Later on I moved in with them, and by that point it was days at a time he’d be lucid and talkative. He started to tell me bits and pieces of history, and I listened. He argued with me about the Bolsheviks, and I argued back, armed with inferior knowledge and teenage righteousness. Sometimes we’d get onto neutral historical ground, and from there we’d roam all over the place – the conversations were hours long, now, and about everything – linguistics, Kierkegaard, the First International, Behaviourism, Makhno, orthodox Jewish life under the Tsars, Nina Simone, punk. He knew so much. There was a rhythmic, grounding quality to him as we lived the crazed lives that late-teens and early-20s people tend to – whatever madness you’d experienced. He’d be sitting on his sofa, coffee and cigarette in hand, reading from dawn until the small hours. For months I remember him sitting stubbornly with Hegel, a dictionary of philosophy on the arm of the sofa, grinding his way through, cheerily parsing the meaning sentence by sentence. I’ve met a lot of clever people in my life, but Ken left everyone in the shade.
He talked wistfully about the library he used to have – everything had been sold during the dog days of addiction. By this time I was quietly in awe of Ken, and this was one thing I could actually help him with, so I jumped at the chance. We started rebuilding his collection. He’d name a title, I’d search the net until we found a second hand copy for pennies, and we’d get it in the post. The stream of books never stopped from there – eventually he had a much, much bigger collection than when he started. On a day with nothing to do, I’d often ask him for a recommendation, and we’d just sit there reading next to each other, and discussing, for hours.
We got him partially reconnected with old acquaintances like Stuart Christie, and he started to take part in the local solfed [Solidarity Federation]. More of us moved in – the house ended up stuffed with young waifs and strays of Hastings, and Ken didn’t bat an eye. He talked to us about more than politics and history – about music, poetry, about what London had been like, about legendary squats and parties. We’d sit with him on Sunday afternoons to watch crap films, cackling as he eviscerated the plot holes. Every now and again we spoke about our lives. He had a selflessness that was so strong it bordered on the hilarious – allowing hordes of us to move in and looking out for us, getting hot sausage rolls for his dog, Sergei and nothing for himself, offering anything he had without a thought.
Ken was the cleverest, kindest man I’ve ever met. The memory me and my friends have of him is pure gold, and it’ll never leave us.
[There are more tributes and photos of Ken at https://www.katesharpleylibrary.net/pvmfhn.]
In KSL: Bulletin of the Kate Sharpley Library No. 105, May 2022