This Way to the Revolution: A Memoir

This Way to the Revolution: A Memoir

by Erin Pizzey

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Overview

First full biography of an international figure, recently in the news after her successful libel case against Andrew Marry, who described her as a terrorist in The Making of Modern Britain


Internationally famous for starting one of the first women's refuges in the modern world, Erin Pizzey is a controversial but hugely-respected activist with enemies on the left and the right, a pioneering figure in the maelstrom of seventies politics, and a key witness of the era. Here, she tells her story in full for the first time. The daughter of a diplomat, Erin Pizzey was born in China in 1939. One of her formative experiences was seeing her parents and brother being put under house arrest by the Maoists in 1949. This instilled a hatred of totalitarian regimes and for a short time Pizzey even worked for MI6 in Hong Kong. Once relocated in the UK, Pizzey was soon swept up by sixties radicalism and the early days of the emerging Women's Liberation Movement. Opening a small community center for maltreated women in Chiswick in 1971 was to bring Pizzey to the front line of what was becoming a national issue in a time when feminists were still treated with hostility and derision by right-wing figures, but also when left-wing radicals scorned anyone, like Pizzey, who put humanity before ideology. By the mid-1970s, Pizzey found herself under bomb threat and picketed by feminists for allowing men to staff refuges: this led to a long exile from the UK where she kept up her activities and achieved international recognition, while also reinventing herself as a best-selling writer. Erin Pizzey's life and trials have been unique; her story is a compelling one, vital to any understanding of a more revolutionary age and burning issues that still resonate today.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780720613605
Publisher: Owen, Peter Limited
Publication date: 06/30/2011
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 356
Sales rank: 931,930
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.90(d)

Read an Excerpt

This Way to the Revolution

A Memoir


By Erin Pizzey

Peter Owen Publishers

Copyright © 2011 Erin Pizzey
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-7206-1523-4



CHAPTER 1

IN THE BEGINNING


It may have been Timothy Leary, the American professor responsible for the destruction of millions of brain cells through his endorsement of LSD, who coined the phrase, 'If you can remember the sixties you probably weren't there.' I remember the 1970s all too clearly but sometimes wish I could forget that whole period.

By the end of the 1960s my husband Jack Pizzey was working for the BBC. As a radio reporter he was sent to cover the rapidly emerging underground groups of young people who seemed determined to destroy the fabric of Western society. Part of me was highly inquisitive about what was going on, and the other part of the convent-educated woman in her late twenties was disgusted.

Jack helped to arrange a television programme that involved flying in leading members of revolutionary groups from across the world. I knew most of these people by name from their inflammatory statements in the British newspapers, and I was curious to meet them face to face. We were asked to collect an American revolutionary from Berkeley University, California, from Heathrow in our dilapidated green van. Most of the others were picked up in Porsches and Mercedes, and our revolutionary went into a sulk when he spied his transport.

The get-together was to take place in a cavernous room in BBC Television Centre in west London. There we were met by more tantrums; one of the revolutionaries from France, Danny Cohn-Bendit (better known in the press as Danny the Red), was screaming at the programme's producer because he didn't like his hotel room and said his expense account was 'merde'.

I couldn't think of anything appropriate to wear for such an occasion, so I took down a red felt curtain in our house in Coulter Road in Hammersmith and fashioned it into a maxi-dress. All around me at Television Centre arguments were breaking out. It seemed as if there was little solidarity among the revolutionaries, and in the middle of the confusion a man approached me waving his arms declaring, 'We must take over the BBC and make our internationally revolutionary demands known to the world!' I recognized him as Ken Tynan, the brilliant British theatre critic who had become notorious for being the first person to say 'fuck' on television. I had been sitting behind him that historic day. I remember he was wearing bright-red socks. He had a stutter, and it took ages for him to say the word; immediately the whole of Britain reverberated with shock. The BBC made a fulsome apology, the House of Commons issued four censuring motions signed by 133 MPs, and Ken Tynan ruined his chances of a future in television.

My next moment in revolutionary history came soon after when a large contingent from the BBC attended a meeting of the Black Panthers in central London. Bernadette Devlin, the political activist and soon-to-be Member of Parliament, introduced the brothers (no sisters), and I watched as one after another dressed in black and wearing black berets assured us 'whities' that we were all going to die in horrible circumstances. I looked down the line of all-white male BBC personnel and was depressed to see them waving their pink fists in the air shouting 'Right on!' The world seemed to have gone mad.

Another close encounter with the so-called revolution took place in a dank basement where Jack was sent to interview Richard Neville, an Australian who was the well-known editor of an 'alternative' magazine called Oz. This was one of many 'underground' magazines that had sprung up during the late 1960s. In one edition of the magazine, the 'Schoolkids' Issue', Rupert Bear, a cartoon character loved by many children including my own, was redrawn with an enormous erection. I failed to find the image amusing. I didn't get a chance to talk to Neville that day, as I was left in his slogan-festooned sitting-room while Jack conducted the interview in an inner sanctum.

I did, however, get to meet Caroline Coon during another of the many occasions I trailed round after Jack and his tape-recorder. She ran an organization called Release where young people could get help with their drug problems. During the 1950s, when I first came to live in London, drugs had been almost unheard of, but now, some fifteen years later, they were everywhere. Young and vulnerable young people benefited from Caroline's sympathetic ear and her practical efforts to assist them. Hers was the first project I encountered that actually seemed to be doing some practical good.

It was around then that a Dutch magazine carried a photograph of Germaine Greer with her bare bottom in the air affording the reader an eye-watering image of her anus and vagina. Her narcissistic posturing aside, she was influential in forcing me to think about my role as a wife and a mother of two children after I read her 1970 book The Female Eunuch from cover to cover. I also read Betty Friedan's work The Feminine Mystique and was comforted to find that the angry, isolated housewife rampaging in my head was not alone. Out there in the universe were millions of women who felt as I did.

I must have been very difficult to live with during my revolutionary birth pangs. Jack and I were regularly invited to dinner parties where most of the women worked for the BBC. I was an embarrassed outsider observing these wonderwomen spouting feminist jargon. Their husbands generally disappeared into the kitchen to attend to the food and keep the wine flowing, while the women held forth at the table. I felt I had nothing to contribute to the debates and often went home in tears of frustration. My problem seemed to be that there was a massive revolution taking place and I was confused because most of it seemed irrelevant to my life and did nothing to address my feelings of isolation.

Jill Tweedie was writing stirring articles in the Guardian newspaper during my period of political awakening, and I sat up in bed in the early hours of the morning voraciously devouring her words. Jill and I were to become unlikely friends many years later; even then I could detect a subversive sense of humour in her writing. Much of the other prose I was reading at the time felt like wading through thick black treacle. I would read the articles and books with a dictionary on my lap. Most of the women authors seemed to use jargon that fenced off those less well educated from the important points they were making. I had achieved four O-levels at school; those and a secretarial shorthand and typing course were the sum total of my education. I struggled on, however, and what I lacked in knowledge I made up in revolutionary fervour.

As soon as I finished reading the Guardian's Women's Page it was time to get our two children out of bed and off to school. Jack had his own routine and was out of the front door and off to his office early every morning to pay the mortgage and bills. My contribution was to take care of everything else. There was a problem with this – I hated housework. I was sure that one day I would be found dead on the dirty kitchen floor having suffered an overdose of Nescafé. In my fantasy next to my rigid body was a bucket full of nappies and in the sink a pile of filthy plates. But however much I hated housework I had the bitter taste of office life in my mouth. I had qualified as a secretary in 1956 when I was seventeen, shared a flat in London with other girls my age, and I had worked in several offices. Even more than housework I loathed the daily grind of working all day long at someone else's beck and call. On balance I preferred to stay at home. Besides, a retail revolution was taking place in the high streets, and a shiny new shop opened called Habitat. For a few pleasurable months I threw myself into ripping up all the old carpets in the house and laying down deep-purple cord carpet and hanging washable wallpaper with bright orange and yellow flowers.

For years the drab grey streets and the beige walls of British houses had depressed me, but now the revolution that erupted on the streets flowed into the worlds of fashion, furniture and lifestyle. My kitchen bulged with terracotta cooking pots, and my wardrobe was full of long multicoloured peasant dresses, while our children were allowed to choose their own flamboyant clothes – much to my mother-in-law's disgust. Although I enjoyed the fashions, the profusion of psychedelic patterns and colours and the frenetic atmosphere of upheaval and change unsettled me more than ever.

Jack was lucky to have a job he loved. I was well aware, however, that this was unusual. Some of the typing pools I had encountered had been veritable snakepits. The women in charge pitted one employee against another and forced us to become like rivals in a paternalistic quasi-family. Now that I had given up secretarial life I felt that relatively well-off women like me were lucky in that we had a choice, but I was aware that millions of women across the world were less fortunate: they went out to work and had to come home and work again.

I enjoyed the freedom to cook nice meals and to play with my children. I spent happy hours dissecting fish in order to show Amos, my son, the gills and the liver. I watched children's television with him and his elder sister Cleo, but the dispiriting routine of vacuuming and scrubbing floors sent me into spirals of despair. It never crossed my mind that Jack should help out in the house. After all, he did the washing-up every night, and that was all I expected from him. I saw my role as a housewife to run the house, take care of the children and create a safe haven for our family. I didn't feel resentful about this, because I knew Jack put in long hours and worked hard. I was happy to create three -course meals for dinner and for the two of us to sit down together to discuss his day. We discussed his day rather than mine because I felt I had nothing much to report. Apart from shopping and housework my life was circumscribed by the One o'Clock Club in nearby Ravenscourt Park and, later, the school run. Some days the best I could offer was some scintillating conversational exchange with one or other of our children.

My father Cyril Carney had worked for the Foreign Office, and when we were not living at Her Majesty's pleasure in handsome large houses in hot distant countries my twin sister Rosaleen and I had been incarcerated in a convent in the Dorset countryside where I escaped my beautiful but violent and emotionally cold mother, Pat, who hated me. I was subject to the whims of a malevolent senior nun who made my life miserable – but at least she couldn't beat me. At the convent all the work was done by the most astonishingly gentle, smiling sisters. As shining examples of the joys of leading a religious life those women were inspirational. I think it was their serenity and contentment in their selfless work on behalf of the children at the school that made me realize that caring for others could be fulfilling in itself. I genuinely believed that selflessly caring for my husband and children would lead to its own reward when our offspring were grown up and I had time to myself.

For several years as a child my sister and I had been left stranded in England. My father had been posted to Tientsin in China in 1949. My brother Danny was too young to be left in a preparatory school, so he had accompanied them. Within a few months they were captured by the Communists and held under house arrest for three years. For a long time we didn't know if they were alive or dead, then letters started to arrive, albeit heavily censored. During this period – indeed for six years or so – Rosaleen and I would spend our school holidays at St Mary's, a holiday home run by a huge kindly woman called Miss Williams that took in around forty boys and girls.

I had been born in China in Tsingtao on 19 February 1939. Two years later my father was posted to Shanghai. Mao was already on his long march from the north of China. My parents were friends of Chiang Kai-shek, the Chairman of the Nationalist Party, who was fighting against the Chinese Communists. All of my father's life was devoted to fighting Communism. After his years under house arrest he became even more rabidly right-wing in his politics. He once threw a glass of wine in my face at a dinner party because I said I liked Paul Robeson's singing voice. 'The man's a red!' he shouted at me.

An incident that still haunts me was when a woman and her two small children came to stay with us in Devon while my father was still in China. My mother told me that the eldest child, who was about seven years old, had been encouraged to inform on her father who had been a senior official at the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank. He was taken away and tortured, and he did not emerge from Communist China until many years after my parents and brother had been released.

My own political awareness was undoubtedly informed by my parents' arrest and incarceration. My father recounted to us the atrocities taking place in China. He talked about the starvation of millions of Chinese peasants and the fact that the benefits of the agrarian revolution had failed to materialize. He told us that women in China were encouraged to have abortions to restrict family size and described, too, the horrors of Stalin's Soviet economic experiment that caused millions to face starvation. He also knew about the gulags that imprisoned and tortured anyone who disagreed with the Communist regime and the 20 million people who had died or were killed.

What confused me in the late 1960s and early 1970s as I read my revolutionary writings was that most of the authors seemed to believe that the brightest future for the West lay in the Soviet and Chinese revolutionary experiments. The intellectuals who came to dinner at our house spoke with revolutionary fervour about what needed to change in society. Their Marxist views left me bewildered. How could people with university degrees advocate Communism of one sort or another as the only way forward?

When I tried to talk about the 20 million murdered by Stalin I was airily told that their deaths had been necessary for the revolution to succeed. I learned to keep quiet, pass the food and wine and to keep my opinions to myself. I soon came to realize that it was all a fashionable game. At the end of a night of furious arguing, smoking, drinking and flirting the dinner guests would return to their comfortable houses to sleep under their Habitat blankets and sheets.

CHAPTER 2

THIS WAY TO THE REVOLUTION


I left Jack to babysit our two children while I went off to attend my first Women's Liberation meeting in Chiswick. It was 1969. As I climbed into the car I realized that I was very nervous. This was the first time I had left Jack to mind the children – and it was the first time I had been out at night without my husband since we had wed almost ten years before.

I came from a generation of women that was brought up to believe that marriage was the ultimate goal. Taking care of my husband and my children was my destiny. Some women of my age had gone to university, but at that time most women expected to get married and give up careers to bring up their children. I was quite happy with my choice. I had never wanted a career. I wanted to create a warm, loving home – the home I never had in my childhood. My rather brittle and cold mother had refused to do housework, so when we were abroad we had servants and she would spend her time playing bridge, organizing parties, shopping – she spent money like water – and complaining about my father. When we were in England on leave my sister and I acted as her servants. Our house was a cold mausoleum to a dead marriage and a woman who was unable to mother.

My first liberation meeting was in a tall house in one of the more affluent tree-lined roads in Chiswick, and as my hostess opened the door I felt ridiculously overdressed. In order to calm my nerves I had slapped on more makeup than usual, and I was wearing my only decent dress – the one garment that wasn't stained from interactions with children and pets. 'Artemis,' she said, extending a cold nail-bitten hand. Her eyes raked my face, and I knew she didn't like what she saw. It was too late to wipe off the makeup, and I realized I should have worn trousers. All the photographs in the newspapers showed feminist women wearing dungarees or boiler suits with flat heavy boots.

I followed Artemis's rigid back through the gloomy hall to the kitchen and reflected that unlike the Artemis of the Greek stories I had read as a child she was plainly no virgin – children's toys were piled everywhere and she was plainly a stranger to housework. Torn pages out of magazines were roughly tacked up around the kitchen walls. I saw pictures of women waving their fists, Asian women shouldering huge rifles, and in the middle was was a photo of pudgy-faced Chairman Mao.

There were six of us present, and only one woman looked as out of place as I felt. Artemis introduced us and said we needed to form a local group, call each other 'comrades' and pay her three pounds ten shillings – £3.50 – to join the movement. 'I came here to join a women's movement,' I objected. 'I don't want to join the Communist Party.'


(Continues...)

Excerpted from This Way to the Revolution by Erin Pizzey. Copyright © 2011 Erin Pizzey. Excerpted by permission of Peter Owen Publishers.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Contents

Note on the Text and Acknowledgements,
List of Illustrations,
1 In the Beginning,
2 This Way to the Revolution,
3 Sisterhood Is Powerful,
4 Taking on the Sisterhood,
5 The Sisterhood Fights Back,
6 Protests and Bombs,
7 Goodbye to the Sisterhood,
8 Making a Dream Come True,
9 Margaret Thatcher, Milk Snatcher,
10 Chiswick Women's Aid Opens Its Doors,
11 Dreams Become Nightmares,
12 Somewhere to Go,
13 The Cycle of Violence,
14 Love – or Addiction?,
15 Scream Quietly or the Neighbours Will Hear,
16 Charity or Empire?,
17 Men Can Be Victims, Too,
18 Parting of the Ways,
19 Sisters Under the Skin,
20 The Bam Bam Club,
21 Pleasure or Pain?,
22 Acton Magistrates' Court,
23 There Are No Tidy Solutions,
24 The Great and the Good Come on Board,
25 'The More You Beat Them the Better They Be',
26 Lunch on Capitol Hill,
27 Rhubarb, Rhubarb, Rhubarb,
28 Sup with the Devil with a Long Spoon,
29 My Refuge Sutton Courtenay,
30 The Boys' House,
31 Grandma,
32 The Palm Court Hotel,
33 Doing Well by Doing Good,
34 The House of Lords' Decision,
35 Jenny Johnson Makes History,
36 Danny Flies In,
37 Back to the Magistrates' Court,
38 Against Judge's Orders,
39 Chiswick Children Go to Greece,
40 Contempt of Court,
41 Running Round the Bend,
42 Goodbye to the Refuge,
Afterword,
Index,

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