It’s 20 years since the writer, socialist and East End of London doctor David Widgery died prematurely, and I want to join those who have written about him in recent days. I’m not sure I was a friend of his – perhaps we were only good acquaintances – but he occupied a unique place in my life between the 1960s and 1980s. Some personal memories…
The first time we met must have been in early 1965 in Sheffield, at an event organised by some short-lived organisation seeking to bring together (who knows why?) the editorial staff of student papers and magazines from “the new universities”. I was the 19-year-old editor of the University of York’s magazine; the even younger Widgery was from LSE. The first time he spoke to me, it went like this.
“What’s your magazine’s title?”, the organiser asked me.
“Eboracum”, I said.
“E-bore-acum more like”, said Widgery loudly, arriving in the conversation with the kind of abrasive impatience he would alternate with warm and tender straightforwardness througout his life.
By 1967 he was sharing a flat in Chapel Market, Islington (and there was nothing New Labour Bijou about that part of Islington then: it was a slum running parallel to Engels’ White Lion Street and strewn with cabbages after market days) with two ex-students I knew from York. I was allowed to move in for the summer, and got to know Dave much better. He played two LPs obsessively that summer, Miles Davis’ Sketches Of Spain and Judy Collins’ In My Life, while we all wrote freelance articles and awaited the revolution. My first piece, for Melody Maker, was a rock fan tirade against plastic pop; his, for New Statesman, a tirade against the “grown-up power” of all the politicians the magazine admired.
In 1968 we were compadres in low-level street action against the state: he put up anti-Vietnam War posters and I drove him and the posters from site to opportunist site in my blue mini-van, the sides of which, in gold lettering of hippyish design, still bore the legend Pitville Circus, the name of my defunct though pioneering headshop in the north of England. We were stopped by the fuzz at the crossroads at Angel, posters confiscated, van scrutinised incompetently for roadworthiness deficiency (they tested the handbrake by trying to push the van backwards, not noticing that I had slipped it into first gear…) and both of us charged to appear before the magistrates’ court. I think we were let off. Grown-up power, pah!
We continued to meet from time to time, usually in others’ company. The photograph above, published here for the first time, I took in Soho in June 1973, along with shots of Sheila Rowbotham and Nigel Fountain. (If you don’t know who they are, you’d benefit from finding out.) Dave and I spent an evening drinking with Robert Shelton at some point soon afterwards, with Dave at his most abrasive and impatient, with the other’s slow delivery and apolitical Americanness (in other words, his Americanness), mellowing a little only as drink sank us all towards sentimentality.
In 1977, having moved across from editing OZ after Richard Neville and co. were put on trial, to editing Temporary Hoardings, the youth paper of Rock Against Racism, Dave got me to write its obituary of Elvis Presley. He appreciated that Elvis had drawn on black music because he’d loved it, even though by then he’d long been a figure held in the greatest possible contempt both by all Widgery’s political friends and by the punks at whom Temporary Hoardings was aimed.
In 1980, when Bob Dylan was deep in his Born Again craziness and I was a year into working for Gerry Rafferty from an office in Tunbridge Wells, I moved to a flat there, on a street named Mount Ephraim. Dave lost no time in phoning me to scoff that my choosing a name like that signified an extreme devotion to where my hero’s head was. We drifted out of anything beyond occasional contact after that. He put his energy where his political mouth was – fighting for the poor by working hard for them as a GP.
I was shocked by his unreasonable death, though it was caused by an excessive drink and drugs session entirely in line with his short lifetime of unrestraint – and I’m a bit shocked now to realise that it happened twenty years ago.
To read him online (most handily here) is to get a vivid glimpse of the man behind his energetic, rousing prose, his political ardour and his frequent resultant wrong-headedness – see for instance his article ‘Lennonism’: a rose-tinted tribute as soppy as Dylan’s more recent one, though involving more thought and more work. At least as representative, though, are two passages on very different topics, chosen by David Hayes of openDemocracy here, showing the power, intelligence and sheer talent of Widgery’s writing:
“To read Kerouac when you were 15, scrabbling through the Ks of Slough Public Library, was a coded message of discontent; the sudden realisation of an utter subversiveness and licence. He legitimised all the papery efforts of a child writer, dream books, pretend novellas, invented games, planned and described walkouts. He expressed a solution to the pent-upness, exitlessness of youth, that feeling of wanking off inside all the time. Everyone I know remembers where they were when they read On the Road, whether newly expelled from school, public librarians (trainee) in Hammersmith, car park attendants in Dorking, knowledgeable Eisenhower drunks or hospital porters, because of the sudden sense of infinite possibility. You could, just like that, get off out of it into infinite hitchhiking futures. Armed only with a duffle coat, you could be listening to wild jazz on the banks of the Tyne or travelling east-west, across the Pennines. Mostly we never actually went, or the beer wore off by Baldcock High Street and you were sober and so cold. But we were able to recognise each other by that fine, wild, windy prose and the running-away motif that made so much sense.” (He was 22 when he wrote that.)
“My interest, affection, it’s hard not to call it love, for Sylvia Pankhurst has grown over the last five years spent practicing as a doctor not half a mile from her old home in the Old Ford Road. East London is different now, studded with tower blocks and fenced with corrugated iron. But curiously the same. Still solidly proletarian, still the sweatshops and street-fights and rent strikes and plenty of old lady patients who remember ‘our Sylvia’ with a twinkle. Still the migrants, speaking Bangla Deshi rather than Yiddish, still the dole queues, longer now than ever. And still a revolutionary socialist minority, of which I’m part, spouting at street corners, dishing out leaflets, spreading union membership, occupying hospitals due for closure. Sometimes I feel Sylvia’s presence so sharply, it’s like a political ghost leaning over my shoulder to look with anger and compassion at the wheezy infants and cooped up young mothers and panicky grannies who live in the council blocks the Labour Council has had the nerve to name after Shelley, Morris and Dickens.” (“Sylvia Pankhurst, Pioneer of Working Class Feminism“,Radical America, May-June 1979).
To read about Dave Widgery online is to see how widely he was valued by, and how strongly he contributed to, the British “far left”, despite his range of admirable renegade tendencies. No-one who knew him could be surprised by the widespread affection and loyalty he elicited, and which was articulated as best people could when he died at just 45.