Review of 'Thirty Years in a Turtleneck Sweater', Nick Warren, Ebury Press £12.99
Des Warren, who died on 24 April 2004 from pneumonia and complications resulting from Parkinson's disease, was better known as one of the 'Shrewsbury Two'. Along with Ricky Tomlinson he was jailed in 1973 for his part in the nationwide building workers' strike of the year before. During the dispute a small group of rank and file activists in North Wales, including Des and Ricky, used the tactic of the 'flying picket' to bring sites out on strike.
The bosses were furious at their methods. Partly this was because the building workers weren't alone. The miners had already struck and defeated the then Tory government in a battle over wages, and massive protests, including strikes, had forced the release of the Pentonville Five, jailed for defying the Industrial Relations Act.
The employers' response to the building workers' strike was not immediate. They waited until it had ended, and this time turned to criminal rather than labour legislation. Des and Ricky were charged under 'conspiracy' laws dating from 1875 and jailed, in Dessie's case for three years. It was clear that the judiciary were determined to make an example of them for organising successful mass picketing. They appealed, but to no avail, and a campaign was begun for their release. The TUC's support, however, was lukewarm, and when Labour was re-elected in 1974, the new home secretary, Roy Jenkins, refused to release them.
In prison Dessie defied the authorities. He campaigned for political status, refusing to do prison work and even going on hunger strike. His refusal to buckle under ensured harsh treatment. He was finally released in August 1976, having served all but a few months of his sentence.
This book, by Dessie's eldest son, Nick Warren, is both a memoir - about what it was like growing up with a father who was either busy being a trade union activist, or in jail - and a tribute to his dad. It starts with a portrait of his father in the advanced stages of Parkinson's disease. But Nick quickly takes us back to his childhood, through a series of little stories. In these his father is in the bloom of health, and he plays a 'colossal lead' in most of them.
Dessie was a natural leader, with a big heart and a wicked sense of humour. The book contains some great stories about the jokes he played on Nick, and there's plenty of evidence that he was much admired by his workmates, both for his skill as a builder and his ability to stand up to the bosses. But it's no hagiography either. With his dad away from home so often, life wasn't exactly a bed of roses for Nick. Many working class memoirs risk idealising hardship, but this book doesn't. Nick loved his dad, but was angry about his absences, especially so as he got older. It's clear that in many ways it's a painful story for him to tell. This is reflected in the book's structure, and the way the little stories give us an insight into the deeper feelings they evoke.
But the childhood stories are interlaced with more recent remembrances. These date from the late 1980s, before Dessie's disease had completely crippled him, when Nick took him to a remote Welsh cottage and quizzed him about his trial and imprisonment. It was on these occasions that Nick came to understand the significance of what his dad had done, and what 'they' did to him. Unsurprisingly, these passages are some of the most poignant and powerful sections of the book. The story of the trial, and his father's imprisonment, and the way he was (mis)treated in prison, all come out here.
This is where the true 'conspiracy' emerges. Nick's father was the victim of a conspiracy between the employers, the police, the judiciary and the Tory government, all determined to see the strikers' leaders jailed. This is why they resorted to century-old laws. In his ruling the judge even made the astonishing statement that 'for conspiracy [to have occurred], they never have to meet and they never have to know each other'. For Des and Ricky to be found guilty of the charges against them, it was enough to show that 'certain things had happened that had a common pattern'.
Des himself put it best in his speech from the dock: 'Was there a conspiracy? Yes, there was, but not by the pickets... The conspiracy was one between the home secretary, the employers and the police. It was not done with a nod or a wink. It was conceived after pressure from Tory MPs who demanded changes in picketing laws... When was the decision to proceed taken? Where did it come from? What instructions were issued to the police, and by whom? There was your conspiracy.'
Des Warren had the courage to fight for what he believed in, and he suffered greatly as the result of an act of class revenge. One of the book's strengths is that it shows the effects of this revenge, not just on Des himself, but also on his family. In laying bare his relationship with his father, Nick Warren has paid him the best tribute of all.