We republish Ian Birchall’s obituary for his very close friend, and rs21 member Bel Druce, who died at the end of August. It was originally published on Ian’s personal website Grim and Dim.
My dear friend Bel Druce died in August 2015. I had known her only in the last five years of her life; her family and many of her friends had known her much longer. Bel was a complex woman, with many layers and aspects; what follows is not an attempt at a complete picture, but just a sketch of the Bel I loved so much, what she meant to me, what I experienced and what she told me about herself. Obviously others will have different, perhaps very different, recollections of Bel.
I have written this for myself, to try and set down something of what Bel was to me before the memories begin to fade, as all memories do, even the best. If it is of interest or gives comfort or inspiration to others who knew Bel, so much the better.
Bel often told me about various episodes in her life. But of course she didn’t do so with precise dates. So I may have got some things out of sequence. (If anyone sends me factual corrections I will amend my account.)
Bel was born in 1940. Her father was a Scottish train-driver 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 learned to speak German, something she largely forgot, yet it remained in the recesses of her mind, for one night during her final illness she began to speak German again. Perhaps this was one of the reasons why she was a genuine internationalist; she could never confine herself to a narrow British identity.
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 early twenties she married, and gave birth to three children: Gemma, Claire and Adam. I always used to tell her that she must have been a very good mother, since she had three such loving children; this was confirmed by the enormous care and devotion all three of them showed during her last illness. Later she had three grandchildren, Danny, Anna and Jordan, of whom she was extremely fond, and last year she was very proud to become the great-grandmother of Max, who celebrated his first birthday by her hospital bed.
In the early years of her marriage she and her husband lived in considerable poverty. She would recall this, not with bitterness (she was rarely bitter) but because, when there was talk of inequality and social injustice, she knew what it meant to be poor.
As the children grew older and her marriage began to break up, 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. (As a higher education lecturer I had many students like Bel – women in their late thirties or early forties who had raised a family. They were always among my best students; they were committed to study and they were well organised.) Bel got her degree and followed it up with a more vocationally oriented MA, in Librarianship, at University College London.
She then considered doing a PhD. She got as far as identifying a 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 (the so-called “Sapir-Whorf hypothesis”). 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. When I knew her I discussed the possibility that she might take up the subject again, but she felt that it would take too much work to go back over her academic studies after all this time.
At some point she became seriously ill with a brain aneurysm. She might easily have died, but she survived thanks to the excellent care she received at the Whittington Hospital. As a result she had a small piece of metal inside her skull. Not surprisingly, she felt a strong sense of gratitude to the NHS in general and to the Whittington in particular, and for the rest of her life she was involved in campaigns against cuts to the health service.
After her divorce she found a new partner, Robert, with whom she lived for a number of years. Robert was black, and this undoubtedly contributed to the way she became fiercely anti-racist. She would talk about examples of racial prejudice she had encountered, and how she had stood up to those whom she felt were bigots.
For much of her life Bel worked as a librarian, becoming a Senior Librarian with the London Borough of Barnet. She was active in her trade union, NALGO – later UNISON. Her activity was mainly at branch level and she would sometimes complain that the union had not given her enough training to enable her to do the job. However she was a popular and effective activist.
She was also involved in other political activities. 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. One of the last films we arranged to see before her final illness was We Are Many, which she hoped might throw some light on the question; unfortunately she felt too ill that evening.
Retirement meant she didn’t have to get up early in the morning – something she hated. But it 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. We met through the Guardian Soulmates website. I had used dating agencies for a number of years, but though I had met some very nice people nothing had really taken off. Bel was encouraged to have a try by her daughters Gemma and Claire, to whom I shall be eternally grateful for having enabled me to meet Bel.
In her presentation she stressed that she was not lonely; she had a loving family and many friends. A male companion would just be “the icing on the cake”. The Guardian asked us to define our politics, and gave us a category of “Socialist” quite distinct from Labour; Bel and I both opted for that. And I was struck by the way she quoted Paul Simon’s “Still Crazy After All These Years”. In my experience people who aren’t a little bit mad are insufferably boring. Bel once again confirmed my view.
We met on a Sunday afternoon in November 2010 on St Pancras station. We talked, of things serious and trivial, for three or four hours. For the next couple of months we met from time to time, saw a film and had dinner in a restaurant. We were both being cautious about commitment.
In April 2011 we wanted to see the new Ken Loach film, Route Irish. For some reason we missed the scandalously small number of showings the film got in London, so we decided we would go to Cambridge for the day to see the film. That day in Cambridge changed everything. “Soulmates” is a silly cliché, but for us it was not wholly inappropriate. We came to discover more and more that we were “on the same wavelength”.
For a few weeks it was young love all over again – exhilarating but a bit disconcerting when you’re over seventy. We saw each other several times a week, talked at length on the phone and exchanged a stream of e-mails – most of them quite unsuitable for reproduction. For a little while we even talked of living together. If I had sold my flat and moved into her house in East Finchley, we would have had a substantial sum of money to spend on travel and the good life. It was a pleasing fantasy but it would never have worked. We had the good sense to let the idea fade before any practical steps were taken.
A Guardian columnist recently tried to malign leftists by claiming we were “ascetics”. Nobody was less ascetic than Bel. She liked good food and enjoyed discovering new restaurants. She took pleasure in gardening and shopping at Waitrose – though she mocked the snobbery associated with it. And though she was not a heavy drinker, she liked a drink. And for her a drink was, almost invariably, Bacardi and coke with ice and lemon – all the ingredients had to be there. Once, in a pub in Muswell Hill, we were told there were no lemons available. Bel stalked out of the pub, walked down the road to the nearest greengrocer, bought a bag of lemons and presented them to the pub.
She had a strong sense of fun; she liked jokes – puns and risqué humour of the “as the actress said to the bishop” type. She was capable of the most ferocious sarcasm, as I often discovered to my cost. And she had a wonderful sense of mischief – she once put her cat on the electoral register. She had no time for pretentiousness or arrogance, and often very rightly brought me down a peg or two – though always quite without malice. While many in later years express regret for youthful excesses, one of the few regrets that Bel repeatedly mentioned was that she had never taken drugs.
She enjoyed life, and thought everyone else had the right to enjoy it too. But, as I got to know her better, 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.
She was fascinated by language and would bombard me with questions. Why did the word “litter” mean both rubbish and a brood of puppies? Why were candidates so called, when generally they were very far from candid? One of her favourite pastimes was doing cryptic crosswords. Going down the pub on a Saturday or Sunday evening to do the Guardian prize crossword may not be everybody’s idea of a wild night out, but we did it whenever possible.
Since she had worked as a librarian, it was scarcely surprising that she loved books. Like me, she enjoyed detective fiction (notably Peter Robinson and Peter James), and we lent each other books and recommended new authors. More generally she was a compulsive book buyer; the problem was, as she would admit with a laugh, that she would buy a book, read the first chapter, then discover another book and start on that. She was ever anxious to extend her knowledge, to understand the world.
She loved the cinema and was devoted to the Phoenix cinema in East Finchley, near her home, which often showed films from outside the commercial mainstream. When she moved to Tottenham she was delighted to discover that she was only a short bus ride from the ArtHouse in Crouch End, where we saw a few – all too few – films together. She agreed with me that Battle of Algiers was one of the greatest films of all time, and introduced me to Costa-Gavras’s “Z”, which for some reason I had never seen.
I discovered that she had never seen anything by Brecht. I arranged for us to go and see The Caucasian Chalk Circle at The Space theatre in the Isle of Dogs. She liked it and we saw several other Brecht plays. The last thing we saw together was Brecht’s opera Mahagonny, livestreamed to the Crouch End ArtHouse from the Royal Opera House. Though neither of us was particularly fond of opera she was fascinated, as she always was by something new. We went often to The Space, to the Arcola in Hackney, to The Scoop on the South Bank, which did Greek tragedies in the open air, and to the Oxford Playhouse. She enjoyed a range of plays, though she was irritated and puzzled by Waiting for Godot (perhaps Beckett would have been pleased).
One of her family once enquired why she always let me do the booking for visits to the theatre, exhibitions etc. She replied, she told me, “why have a dog and bark yourself?” After that I always signed my e-mails to her with a little image of a dog.
In music our tastes were rather different – she liked Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Nitin Sawhney, but she was always willing to try something new and we frequently exchanged you-tube links.
She also wanted to travel, to see more of the world. In September 2011 we went to the South of France. We stayed in Arles, where she was fascinated by the Roman and medieval buildings. We went to Marseille, and took a motor-boat out into the Mediterranean; I remember the look of sheer delight on her face, even though she was drenched with spray. The following year we went to Yorkshire, to my home town of Shipley, and visited Knaresborough, Haworth and Bradford just before the famous Galloway by-election victory. In 2013 we went to Bruges, where again she was enchanted by the medieval architecture.
But her cultural and intellectual pursuits were always paralleled by a deep curiosity about human beings. Over the years she had made a great many friends. I met some of them – Sally and Mark, Julie and Rick, Nigel and Lisa, Susan. And I could see what had attracted her to them and them to her – they were warm, generous and independent-minded. But she was still eager, almost greedy, to make new friends.
Once we had arranged to meet in Pizza Express in Muswell Hill. I got there perhaps ten minutes after she did, but by the time I arrived she was deep in conversation with the young woman on the next table. In the hotel at Shipley, one evening when trade was rather slack, we got chatting to the waitress, a very pleasant young woman who had dropped out of a university course in tourism. In the course of conversation Bel discovered that she had never been to London. Before the evening was over she had given the waitress her address and told her she could stay with her if she ever wanted to come to London.
A thirst for ideas and a fascination with human beings: these two things lay at the base of Bel’s moral and political views. She was not naïve; she didn’t think human beings were naturally good. She was capable of anger and even hate, especially directed against those in positions of power. And she was sometimes irritated by what she saw as anti-social behaviour. A particular obsession was people who rang the bell on buses when it had already been rung. I think this annoyed her so much because of empathy with the driver, who had the constant jangling in his ears.
But ultimately the basis of Bel’s politics lay in the belief that most people were decent and well-meaning, and deserved to enjoy life. And politics was central to the friendship between us.
Our backgrounds were very different. I had been a political activist for fifty years, for most of that time a member of a revolutionary Marxist organisation, the Socialist Workers Party [SWP]. 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. (It’s possible she had been a member of the Labour Party at some point, but I don’t know.) Yet it was surprising that on so many questions out views coincided.
(The one thing on which we differed was animal rights. I had always taken the position that when human beings stop killing each other, I’ll find time to worry about animals. Bel, on the other hand, extended her compassion and empathy to all forms of life; this was shown by her devotion to her beloved cat Poppy. Though it must be added that her concern for animals never went so far as to persuade her to stop eating them.)
Sometimes she would accuse me of being excessively concerned with politics, at the expense of everything else in life. If I didn’t like a book or a song she was enthusing about, she would enquire, her voice dripping with sarcasm: “Is it not po-li-ti-cal enough for you?”
I had never thought of on-line dating as a means of party recruitment, and I had no intention of trying to involve Bel in my political activities. On the other hand, 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 somewhat cliquish atmosphere, but soon she began to participate in the discussions, and she loved meeting up with other participants for a drink after the seminars.
In the summer of 2011 I suggested going to the SWP’s annual Marxism event. This ran for five days with a couple of hundred meetings on a wide range of political, historical and cultural topics. There would surely be things there that would interest her. She came along for the first day and attended three meetings. She then announced that she had decided to join the SWP. I was somewhat taken aback by this, as I had never envisaged such a thing. She was seventy-one years old, and had never had any involvement with any far left organisation. But she had liked what she had seen and liked the people she had met.
Of course she didn’t become as active as a younger recruit would have done. But she took her membership seriously. She attended branch meetings in Camden, although it was some distance from her home. She turned up on demonstrations. And she read the SWP publications assiduously – much more assiduously than I did, for she frequently drew my attention to reviews of films or exhibitions that I had not noticed. As she told me, she felt that at last, now, in her seventies, she had found her “political home”. Alas, it was not to be.
As ever, Bel saw the SWP as an opportunity to meet new people and to make new friends. In 2011, before she joined the SWP, we went to an academic seminar and afterwards went for a drink with a couple of SWP members. I had a long discussion with one of them, a woman who was a longstanding party member; Bel was fascinated, even though what we were discussing related to party history and must have seemed largely incomprehensible. Although she had only met her once, Bel invited the comrade to dinner. She came, and with the aid of a couple of bottles of wine we talked non-stop until 3.00 a.m.; Bel had to offer a bed to her dinner guest.
Then there was Bunny. In June 2012 we went to the Oxford Playhouse to see Close the Coalhouse Door. Quite by chance we met Bunny, an SWP activist from Kent who was now studying at Ruskin College, and we had a drink after the play. When Bunny and Bel met again at Marxism Bunny told her she was going to continue her studies at King’s College in London; she would commute from Kent but needed somewhere to stay in London for a couple of nights a week. With typical generosity, although it was only the second time they had met, Bel offered her a room in her house. On the face of it they seemed very different people; they had had different life histories and different lifestyles. But they immediately took to each other and became firm friends, talking for hours.
Then at the beginning of 2013 a terrible crisis erupted in the SWP. This is not the place to discuss the issues, beginning with the affair of a former National Secretary accused of rape. Members began to leave in large numbers, other members refused to accept party discipline, and various non-members who had worked closely with the SWP in the past announced that they would boycott the party.
For me it was profoundly distressing to watch an organisation to which I had devoted enormous amounts of time and energy over fifty years tearing itself apart. But I could hardly expect Bel to see things in the same way. Factional disputes in small far left organisations are a mysterious closed world, intense and painful for those involved, but seeming incomprehensible and probably absurd to those outside.
After some discussion and a lot of anguish I decided to put my name to the founding statement of an opposition faction which was being formed. I sent a copy of the statement to Bel as a matter of information; I did not make any attempt to involve her. She e-mailed back that she had already signed. Obviously she did not come to the dispute from the same background as myself, but she knew there was something deeply wrong. On 17 February she spent the whole day of her seventy-third birthday at a faction meeting; her family must have thought she was mad.
The whole miserable affair dragged on for the rest of the year. Bel continued to attend the faction meetings, staying for much longer than I did. I only came to realise after her death just how many new friends she had made during the process. Quite how I would have got through it all without Bel’s firm but calm support I do not know. Probably I should have been overcome with anger and acted irresponsibly. Just two small incidents, trivial in themselves, showed how Bel lived through the dispute alongside me.
In the summer of 2013 we went to an exhibition called “The Spirit of Utopia” at the Whitechapel Gallery. As part of the exhibition there was an imaginary clinic where one could draw a face on a balloon and insert it into a mattress roughly shaped like a human body. I drew the face of one of my political opponents and spent ten minutes pummelling the mattress with my fists. Bel understood my anger; she laughed and said she had not seen me looking so happy for months. Yet she also constantly warned me not to give way to personal antagonism, not to waste emotional energy being angry with people who were not losing any sleep worrying about me. Her advice was wise, though I found it hard to follow.
Bel had become friendly with a couple from the SWP, one of whom was a friend and comrade I had known for nearly fifty years; she invited them to dinner. By the time they offered a return invitation, some months later, the storm had broken. What began as a delightful evening turned sour when we discussed the dispute. Bel was upset and a little shocked, but she insisted that the comrades remained my friends and that I should not let a political dispute damage a friendship. Again wise words which I found it hard to heed.
And she never lost her sense of mischief. She always referred to SWP leader Alex Callinicos as “Nellie the Elephant” after someone pointed out that the two names had the same stress pattern.
In December 2013, after the party conference, Bel and I both resigned from the SWP, seeing no future for ourselves there. And now, for the first time, our political paths diverged – though only on a purely tactical level. After fifty years in the SWP I could not face joining another organisation; I decided I would do some writing, and work with any of the various groupings on the left in the hope of encouraging more comradely cooperation and debate.
Bel, however, wanted a framework for her political activism. She had become very friendly with some of the comrades in the opposition faction who were now setting up rs21 [Revolutionary Socialism in the 21st Century]. She joined rs21 and stayed with it even though some of those she was close to dropped out. Her nearest branch met near Manor House, three bus rides from her home in East Finchley, but she got to as many meetings as she could. Now it was Bel who was trying to involve me in political activity. In May 2015 she persuaded me to sign up for a weekend event organised by rs21 to evaluate the election results, though in the end her health prevented her from attending.
At the same time she became involved in Left Unity in Barnet. Here was another opportunity to make new friends, and she took on various jobs and responsibilities. More and more she was making an independent political life for herself, still working her way towards that “political home” she longed for.
A new problem emerged when Bel decided to do something she had been thinking about for some years – move house. Apart from her knee she was in good health, active and enjoying life. She had every reason to think she might live another ten years or more and she wanted to ensure her financial future by “downsizing”, selling her terrace house and buying something smaller and cheaper.
She found herself dealing with the corrupt, insane London housing market in one of its worst phases. For months in 2014 she spent weekend after weekend viewing flats, making offers and finding she had lost out to people who had offered well above the asking price. It was a time of great stress for her and cast a shadow over what was to be her last full year. Yet she did not let it spoil everything; she was still enjoying life, still curious and still learning. In the autumn of 2014 she and her daughter Claire did a French language course. As far as I could judge (and it’s my field) it was a demanding and rigorous course which covered a lot of ground, but she handled it well and learned a great deal as well as getting much enjoyment from it. And she was still developing new friendships; Merilyn Moos and Annie Nehmad she had initially met through me, but they soon became good friends in their own right.
At last she managed to find a new flat in Tottenham, just over the road from Downhills Park, which she never had time to explore properly. She was pleased that she was now living very close to her dear friend Sally. Though she had often visited Sally, near Turnpike Lane, she scarcely knew the eastward side of Tottenham. In 2011 she came with me to a large meeting near Bruce Grove just a week after the riots. Later we dined at the Kitap Evi restaurant and saw a play at the Bernie Grant Arts Centre. She liked the area and was looking forward to getting to know it better. She was, however, a little worried by the clothes worn by some of the people she saw in Downhills Park and feared the area might be becoming middle class! She had ambitious plans for restructuring the flat and was getting to know her neighbours.
There was just one more obstacle ahead before she could start developing her political activities and enjoying life. 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 January 2015 she went into the Whittington Hospital for a knee replacement operation. All went well. She had excellent care at the Whittington, spent a while at her daughter Gemma’s and then returned to her flat, where she navigated herself on crutches. Soon she was walking with just a stick, although she had a setback when she rather overoptimistically jumped off a bus.
In March 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, Jenny Sutton, in her front window, and, as she proudly 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, and though she was feeling very tired she was enthused by good turnout and the inspiring atmosphere.
Throughout May Bel was unwell, but she believed it was a short-term infection and she was still making plans for her new flat and for future outings. At the beginning of June she had a heart attack and was taken into the North Middlesex Hospital. She was then diagnosed with cancer. What followed for her family and her many friends was a ten-week roller-coaster of hope and fear.
For most of June she was very ill. The tumours had produced a high calcium level in her blood and as a result she was very confused, being unsure where she was or what was happening to her. Later we learned that she had been suffering from some rather frightening delusions – she thought she was fighting the war on drugs in Nigeria and being interrogated by the IRA.
But in July she recovered her lucidity. She was still physically weak and easily tired, but she was managing to walk a few steps down the corridor. She was trying hard to regain her mental powers, and responded well to some of the simple crosswords I took her. As we learned later, the chemotherapy was beginning to work, and her tumours had been shrunk significantly. Her family showed incredible devotion to her care, and she had many visitors. For a little while her single room rang with laughter as she talked and joked with her friends. Her capacity for ferocious sarcasm, especially directed at me, was unimpaired.
Bel very much appreciated the high standard of care she received from the staff at the North Mid. 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.
And she was busy making plans for the future. She was hoping to leave hospital and do the rest of her chemotherapy as an outpatient while living at Gemma’s. Bunny had suggested that she might go and stay in Ramsgate for a few days to convalesce; she loved the idea and was looking forward to walking on the beach and talking to Bunny. Claire was planning to take her to France. I suggested that next spring we could go to Toulouse, and see some of the medieval architecture she was so fond of.
Then she began to have problems breathing. She was accumulating fluid on her lungs which had to be drained off. Despite the best efforts of the medical staff she was deteriorating, physically and mentally. But she did not give up easily. She loved life and she tried so hard to hold on to it.
Indeed she fought so hard for life that, in effect, she died twice. Late on Wednesday, 5 August, I was called to the hospital. Her children, their partners and her grandchildren were gathered round her bed. I stayed for an hour or two, said my farewells, and went home, expecting a phone call to tell me it was all over. Instead Gemma phoned the next day to tell me that she was still alive; the doctors were “completely baffled”. Annie Nehmad, who saw her on the Friday, found her quite lucid and had a conversation with her. Bunny, who was delighted by the news, sent me an e-mail to say she was a “kick ass woman”. I did pass on the message, which would have delighted Bel, but I think she was too far gone to understand. By the weekend her poor battered body was collapsing under the strain, and she died the following week.
Bel was just one of the many, many thousands around the world who have made their contribution to the struggle for a better and fairer world. Whether her dreams will ever be realised remains an open question. Bel knew that history is not made by great men and women, but by masses of individuals. As Brecht put it:
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? In which of Lima’s houses,
That city glittering with gold, lived those who built it?
In the evening when the Chinese wall was finished
Where did the masons go?
But she was also a unique individual, who touched the lives of so many she came into contact with. This was shown by the large number – over seventy – who attended the moving and appropriate funeral ceremony organised by her family. I was very lucky to have known her. I only wish it could have been for a little longer.
1 September 2015