I worked politically with James for nearly twenty years – from 1992 until last year, when James was attempting to put together some form of autobiography. I want to cover some of the things James did in that time, the actions he was involved in and the beliefs he had. I do this not just to record James’ life, but because many of those issues remain important.
James joined Class War in 1992 from an unlikely political route – via The Leninist. They were a small splinter from the Communist Party of Britain (CPB), who had attempted to keep the Communist flame alive whilst much of the CPB was trying to maintain their positions in the trade union hierarchy, heading for think tanks or what would become new Labour. James had been brought up in a Communist family and had been a member of the Communist League as a child – this gave him a particular political education that would see him take ideas seriously, no matter how marginal they may appear. He took the Leninist’s successor, the Weekly Worker, for as long as I knew him.
Class War in the early 1990s, and the London left and anarchist scenes in general, were busy places to be. James would travel to London from Luton for paper sales, meetings, demonstrations, gigs and piss-ups. He was invariably late “Sorry mate, ticket inspectors on the line” would be a familiar excuse. James would also be let down by a succession of dilapidated second hand cars which would be parked in side streets in Camden, invariably full of mounds of what to everyone else appeared to be rubbish. Somewhere in there would be a stereo or if he was lucky a functioning car radio, playing which ever punk bands had his favour.
It was around this time James earned the nickname ‘Captain Bollocks’ in Class War. He would invariably denounce any idea he disagreed with as ‘bollocks’ his volume rising a notch higher than his already ringing tones. Such absolute positions certainly rubbed people up the wrong way – at a Class War conference in Leeds in 1993 James was chairing when he was asked to read an amendment to a proposal. He did, before adding “I think it’s a load of bollocks myself” – the members from Yorkshire were mutinous and he was soon back in the ranks on the conference floor. I am not sure he ever chaired a meeting again?
Politically this was an era of left groups searching – unsuccessfully – for the ‘next poll tax’ and the big demonstrations against the first wave of support for the BNP. James always had reservations about anti-fascism - primarily on the grounds that we needed to get our own shit together before worrying about anyone else – but that did not stop him getting stuck in. It was ironic that James should die so soon after the SWP’s Julie Waterson – both were treated in the same hospital after the Welling march against the BNP in 1993. Both had been hit from behind by police officer’s truncheons. In the Good Mixer in Camden the next day James showed off his bloodied great coat, but was appalled at how he had seen Waterson behave in the hospital – ranting about the police and threatening to sue Met Police Commissioner Sir Paul Condon. To James you took such events on the chin – if the enemy landed one on you, you got one back the next time.
A staple of James politics in this period was a real distaste for what had subsumed class politics on the left – political correctness, animal rights and what Class War used to call the ‘Nalgo-tocracy’ – that privileged group of urban middle class professionals who read The Guardian, who professed to hate the Tories and all they stood for, but were doing very nicely thank-you-very much working in local government, the civil service or left leaning professions like social work. Again his directness on these issues did him few favours, even though the new Labour era was to show that capitalism could take on board many of these ‘revolutionary’ issues and continue being, well, capitalism.
By 1995-96, whilst London Class War was thriving, the rest of the organisation was pretty much down in the dumps. Ian Bone and Tim Scargill were long gone, and those who had agitated so hard for their removal had proven to be empty vessels themselves. Class War launched a strategy review, which quickly spiralled out of the control of the active members in London. I had many intense phone calls from James in this period (to call them conversations would be generous) he was dead set against any review “If you don’t like Class War, leave Class War” he would shout, Paisley-like at my poor eardrums. James would have made a great Orangeman.
I still believed the stated objective – uniting all the UK’s Anarchists into a new organisation – was worth working towards. When we discovered Leeds Class War (James’ oldest foes) and some ex-members had been meeting in secret in London, the game was up – Class War split. James was right, when so many others, myself included, had been wrong. James was soon in full ‘we are the masters now’ mode, and if I remember rightly it was James’ idea to have the Spice Girls on the cover of the first issue of Class War edited in London – but with Posh Spice blacked out. Get rid of the Posh – that was his politics in a nutshell.
In this period James began doing nibbles of media work. We spent a day in Carlisle with Border TV (James insisted on finding Hadrian’s Wall to check if it could still be used if necessary) Tara Palmer-Tomkinson described him as a pussy cat, and he also went up against Ann Widdicombe. On another occasion James and myself spent several hours at the Anarchist Bookfair in Conway Hall being chatted up outrageously by two nubile ‘researchers’ from the Louis Theroux show. It became obvious to us that this was how Theroux sucked people in to making fools of themselves on his programme, but neither of us could bring ourselves to tell these two women to fuck off. James was always on the pull. Such media work, whilst it promoted Class War, also brought criticism, particularly from Anarchist groups who did not get asked to do such interviews. James never took such views personally, laughing out loud when one critic stated “Class War now appears to be run by a man who looks like Boris Johnson”. I hope someone can now collate the clips of all those media experiences.
Despite his theoretical knowledge, James was not a political writer. His dyslexia made writing more than a few paragraphs difficult, and his ideas tended to be produced on crumpled pieces of lined paper, in spidery blue handwriting that I can see in front of me now. The longer that writing went on for, the less sense it made, but if pressed there was always a consistent argument present, and often a gem of an idea or a sound bite. Class War used those lines repeatedly after 1997, and I was still doing so up until a few months ago. When I asked James about the EDL he summed them up better than anyone else has done: “The problem with Tommy Robinson, is that you and me could do Tommy Robinson far better than he does Tommy Robinson.”
All political careers end in failure. We surprised many by producing Class War bang on time each year for May Day and the Anarchist Bookfair. It was more coherent than expected, still comfortably outsold every other Anarchist publication, but like others before us, we proved utterly incapable of building a large political organisation or movement. James probably sensed this earlier than most of his generation in CW – he was the only person to get involved in the Socialist Alliance, which I think he viewed as an attempt to get all the radical forces in particular towns or cities united under one banner against New Labour. In Luton he worked tirelessly to do this, but after a while the phone calls, usually complaining about the SWP, increased both in number and in volume. It didn’t work, but James tried the Socialist Alliance route and failed, whilst others did not try.
By the middle part of the last decade, James was part of a political generation on the revolutionary left that had been active for years, but had broadly known only political defeat, with the odd token victory on the way. Posting as ‘James Walsh’ on Meanwhile At The Bar (MATB), James found that generation in one place, all huddling together for warmth. Here people articulated where the left had gone wrong, usually because they had been there themselves, watching the SWP chewing up and spitting out young people, or relating their experiences of injustice when up against the party hierarchy.
James was comfortable and the odd flaming row excepted, in like minded company. Posters could agree that the left had so readily departed the battlefield of class conflict, to instead fight on grounds of race or spurious notions of ‘equality’ that all too often had no resonance outside of those who made the definitions in the first place. As the leadership of the anti-war movement (the CPB and SWP) decided that gay rights or abortion rights should not be seen as ‘shibboleths’ preventing work with Muslim communities, MATB members low expectations of the revolutionary left were met in full. Those who would once have denounced James as ‘sexist’ for saying forbidden words like ‘cunt’ in conversation over a pint in the Dog and Bucket, were now to be found stood outside mosques, working with the British versions of Jamaat-e-Islami or the Muslim Brotherhood. And you lectured James on sexism?
I guess it was some years after this, that things began to go wrong for James. Having been a van driver and a house husband, he surprised many by looking to become a junior school teacher. His temperament did not sit well with the educational authorities – all too often that left leaning ‘progressive’ middle class establishment that he so hated – plus he must have struggled with his dyslexia. From what I can gather, James passed the universities exams, but failed his placement, in effect closing the door to a teaching career. On education, James argued he wanted to see the whole community actually involved in schools – can you imagine what children would learn if we could tap into the experiences and knowledge of all their parents, and all the people in the community – it would knock the national curriculum for six. It has not happened, and whether Labour, Tory or Lib Dem, we are as far away from that as ever.
From 2008 I had seen less and less of James in person, although he still made the Anarchist Bookfair and his phone calls – often provoked by hearing ‘some idiot’ on Radio 5 or something he had read in the Weekly Worker – continued through until this year. The last time I saw James was when we travelled to Salford to represent what had been Class War, at the funeral of Ken Keating in Salford. By now he was working on an autobiography, even though doing so in your early 40s was, to me, absurd. The drafts he sent were often unreadable, with flashes of his old brilliance. He did not seem to grasp that the reader needed to be introduced to particular issues and individual actors – instead everything was head down, full rant mode. It was all too personal.
It seems towards the end of his life his mental health problems were considerable, although in October I had an email that was clear and focused - I still turned to James when I wanted to know what was happening in Luton. If I had to sum James May up politically it would be to repeat Danny Thompson’s view that he wanted socialism because he believed we could do so much better than capitalism. That used to be the dominant view of British Communists – their argument was once clear: imagine what we could achieve as a class, if we were working, not for a boss, but for each other? Somewhere along the line, be it with the Trabant or TV images of Romanian orphanages after the fall of Ceausescu, that expectation of socialism died. The moral politics of ‘equality’ and ‘anti-discrimination’ that the left had pushed in the 1980s, took over completely. But it never took over James. He still wanted that dream.
Years ago, James drove me to a Class War conference in Birmingham. He had just got a second hand Skoda, one of the few still on the roads from the time before Volkswagen took over the old Communist Skoda factory. He insisted on spiking up his Mohican, but was then faced with an insurmountable problem. The spikes, combined with his height and boots, meant he was now too tall to sit up fully in the driving seat. We drove the whole way, on the M1 and M6, with James’ head at a peculiar angle leaning to the left, his neck cricked to the side. I don’t think he stopped talking about ideas once during the whole journey. That was James, and it is impossible to think of him any other way.