Obituary: BEL DRUCE (1940-2015)
Those who attend seminars at the IHR may well Bel Druce who until recently was a regular presence. She sadly died over the summer and this piece by Ian Birchall serves to remind us of the life of an activist
My friend Bel Druce, who died in August as a result of a heart attack and cancer, had been a regular participant in LSHG seminars for the last few years. Like many LSHG members she was not a professional historian by training, but brought to the group insights derived from her own experience and commitments.
Bel was born in 1940. Her father was a Scottish traindriver and, quite naturally at that time, a trade unionist. Her mother was Swiss. I don’t know the exact circumstances, but just after the end of the War her mother took her to live in Switzerland, for a year, perhaps longer. She returned to England and continued her schooling. She enjoyed learning, and even studied ancient Greek for a year. She would have liked to stay on at school and go on to higher education, but her mother was opposed to this.
In her twenties she married and gave birth to three children. As the children grew older she decided to get the education she had missed out on earlier. She enrolled at the LSE as a mature student and did a degree in anthropology. She followed this up with an MA in Librarianship at University College London. She then considered doing a PhD on the subject – “Language and perception in a multicultural society”. This was based on the principle that the language we use shapes the way in which we perceive the world we live in. Bel wanted to examine this principle in terms of the various versions of English spoken in different ethnic communities in Britain. It would have been a fascinating piece of work, but sadly it never materialised.
For much of her life Bel worked as a librarian, becoming a Senior Librarian in Barnet. She was active in her trade union, NALGO – later UNISON - where she was a popular and effective activist. She was one of the two million who marched against war in Iraq in February 2003 – though later she would worry as to whether the demonstration had achieved anything. She was fiercely anti-racist.
Retirement gave her more scope to pursue her intellectual activities. She became a volunteer worker in the anthropology section of the British Museum. She also started attending evening classes on topics such as political theory. At times she would get into heated arguments with her fellow-students, notably about the Middle East. This was the Bel Druce I met in 2010.
The two most striking things about her were her intellectual curiosity and her capacity for friendship. She had an insatiable thirst for knowledge, and was constantly asking questions, never willing to accept the received orthodoxy about anything. Bel had been an active trade unionist, supported various left-wing causes and subscribed to Red Pepper. But she had never been a member of a political organisation.
Knowing her intellectual curiosity and her fondness for evening classes, I suggested going to various meetings and seminars which might interest her. We started attending meetings of the London Socialist Historians Group. Initially I think she was a bit intimidated by the atmosphere, which could on occasion be a little cliquish, but soon she began to participate in the discussions, and she loved meeting up with other participants for a drink after the seminars. I introduced her to Keith Flett’s website, which intrigued and amused her. In the summer of 2011, after attending Marxism, she decided to join the SWP. She felt that at last, now, in her seventies, she had found her “political home”. In 2014 she joined RS21. At the same time she became involved in Left Unity in Barnet, where she took on various jobs and responsibilities. She was still working her way towards that “political home” she longed for.
For some time she had been suffering from a problem with her left knee which made it impossible for her to walk any distance. In the summer of 2014 she was outraged by the Israeli bombardment of Gaza but was unable to take part in any of the massive demonstrations in Central London. She did, however, hobble her way up from Turnpike Lane to Haringey Civic Centre on a local demonstration.
In March this year she took part in what was to be her last demonstration; very fittingly it was UN Anti-Racism Day. She wasn’t able to march the full distance, but she joined us at Piccadilly Circus to walk the last few hundred yards to Trafalgar Square. Then we went to a café. I went to get her a cup of coffee; when I returned to the table I found her, typically, deep in political discussion with an anti-nuclear campaigner who had also been on the march.
Bel’s last political involvement was with the election campaign of the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition [TUSC]. She wasn’t able to do much campaigning, but she had no less than three window bills for the TUSC candidate in Tottenham, Jenny Sutton, in her front window, and, as she reported, it got her into a number of political discussions with neighbours and passers-by. The very last meeting she attended was Jenny Sutton’s final election rally.
At the beginning of June she was taken into the North Middlesex Hospital. Bel very much appreciated the high standard of care she received and she was able to spend her last weeks in dignity and relatively free from pain. It was easy to see that she was trying to make friends with those who were caring for her, but when one of the staff expressed approval of Jeremy Hunt she immediately started an argument.
Bel’s attitude to history was aptly summed up by Brecht’s poem:
Who built the seven gates of Thebes?
The books are filled with names of kings.
Was it the kings who hauled the craggy blocks of stone?
And Babylon, so many times destroyed.
Who built the city up each time?
For a fuller account of Bel’s life go to