Many years ago I read a book edited by Phil Cohen called Children of the Revolution; it was stories of people who had grown up with parents who were members of the Communist Party (CP) in the 1950s. I found it oddly depressing with the notable exception of the interview with Michael Rosen. He was one of the few contributors who had not lost faith in the ability to fight to make the world a better place.
In his new memoir Rosen places his childhood, adolescent and student years in political context. Both his parents were teachers and active members of the National Union of Teachers (NUT). They left the CP over the Russian invasion of Hungary and internal democracy. However, they didn’t abandon the dream of fighting for a better education system for all.
As you would expect from an excellent storyteller like Rosen, the book is full of humour and optimism but with twinges of sadness. Yiddish expressions are scattered throughout.
You can see from his own education experience why he is such an active campaigner for inclusive education. He lost touch with his best friend from junior school when his friend failed the 11 plus. An exchange programme with a pupil from Winchester College gave him the experience of seeing how the rich minority are educated, not just in smaller classes, but with an adult approach to understanding literature.
Rosen is a rebel. He had to turn down a part in one of the school productions, as rehearsals were on Tuesdays and that was detention night.
When he took his final exam at Oxford the requirement was to wear black shoes, black suit, white shirt, white bow tie — otherwise they would be excluded from the exam. He had to borrow the clothes but painted “Hells Angels. Jeff Chaucer” on the inside of the jacket, which he turned inside out just before the end.
There are lovely stories of Communist camping holidays in France or his adventures without parents on the CND Aldermaston march aged 13.
The Socialist Workers Party can take some credit for assisting Rosen to get his head around household chores, as he shared a flat with one of the founder members of forerunner the International Socialists, who set up a cooking and cleaning rota.
The final section is a letter to his late father, recounting Michael’s search over the the past few years to find the disappeared members of his Jewish refugee family.