Saturday, 3 May 2014

Book Review: Street Fighting Mann

From LSHG Newsletter 52 (Summer 2014)

Sadism, Songs and Stolen Liberty 
By Stephen Mann
Createspace Independent Publishing Platform
Paperback 300pp
ISBN 978-1497404434

Steve Mann’s memoir of his youth in the Royal  Navy it that unusual thing, a book about politics  that is also a compelling and enjoyable read.

A North Londoner, Steve signed up for the Royal  Navy in the first half of the 1960s for the minimum term of 12 years.

He quickly came to realise that it was not a pleasant place to be. It might be argued that the petty rules and discipline could be found elsewhere too in the 1960s, but obviously in the armed forces it was taken as a given fact of life.

Steve quite quickly realised that a career in the Royal Navy wasn’t for him, but he was contractually bound to stay. Unlike other jobs you could not just walk out and resign. That would be desertion. As it turned out he did get what appears to have been a good training as a chef and remains, so his trade union colleagues tell me, an excellent cook to this day. Whether this was quite what he had in mind when he signed up is less clear. Certainly he seems to have seen a lot more of land-bound training ships than he did the sea or particularly interesting overseas locations.

The book recounts his political awakening as he contacts the Communist Party in North London [they did not allow members of the services to join] and the old TGWU [likewise]. He reads the Morning Star and Socialist Worker and ends up writing pieces for both papers.

His left-wing leanings clearly aroused the interest of the security services who kept a fairly close watch on both his activities — attending anti-Vietnam war demonstrations for example — and whom he spoke to.

Steve eventually decided to try and buy himself out of the Navy and did pioneering work with the National Council for Civil Liberties [now Liberty] to see if the law that bound people into the services for long periods could be challenged and changed.

He had made his opposition to the Vietnam War clear and told the Navy that, were Britain to become involved, he could not fight — in effect becoming a conscientious objector. His statement was not taken at face value. He had to undergo a lengthy discussion with a Navy padre to prove the point.

In due course the Navy did allow him to buy himself out, for far more money than he had. Socialists in Hornsey had a fundraising Party to Free Steve Mann, which eventually they in fact did.

The book is also a record of North London working class life in the 1960s, the cafés and pubs, the music of the day [there is a list of favourite records at the end] and, the major downside of the book, the support for Arsenal.

If you were around in the 1960s you’ll love the book and even if you weren’t you’ll find it a very engaging piece of working class autobiography. It is an important contribution to our understanding of how people became part of ‘the left’ and what it meant.

Keith Flett

Stephen Mann will be talking about his autobiography on Monday 12 May at 5.30 in the Bloomsbury room G35 in the Institute of Historical Research as part of the LSHG summer seminar series

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