Tom Behan told Chris Bambery about his life
‘I grew up in Harrow, or more precisely Rayners Lane. The public school up on the hill had nothing to do with our world. In fact one of the first times me and some mates ever went up there was when we bunked off one afternoon.
One of us whipped a straw boater off one of the toffs who went very red and said, “Oh, give me that back.” “Nah, you come and get it,” we replied. The little blighter then went increasingly red, and tears started to swell in his eyes: “If I go back without that boater matron will give me a damn good thrashing.” “See if I care mush,” we said.
Realising he couldn't take on four or five us, he gave us a £1 to get it back. Back in 1972, that was a lot of money for schoolkids, so we tried to make it a bit of a cottage industry. I can vividly remembering some of them hollering when they saw us, “Oh Claude, it's those bad boys, run!” And off they went down the high street, holding on to their stupid boaters.
With hindsight, joining the SWP came from my Irish background. My parents weren’t particularly political, but were your average republicans. When the television tried to explain partition, the history of the IRA, internment, Bloody Sunday, or whatever, my mum and dad would comment to each other, “Jesus, this is a pack of lies.”
But as a kid you tend to generalise—if the television told lies about Ireland why wouldn’t it tell lies about England? Anti-Irish prejudice was very strong at the time, and particularly in London—bombs were fairly frequent and there was much talk about Active Service Units being put up by Irish families.
Another turning point was a “fishing trip” by armed Special Branch to our house at 5am one morning in 1974, apparently they’d received a report we had a bren gun in the house. All they had on me was an overdue library book. What with deportation of Irish citizens without appeal at the time (such as my dad), what was clear to us was that no politician would help us and we were on our own. In recent years I’ve made this parallel—in Britain in the 1970s the Irish community lived like many Muslims do today.
Socialist Worker first came onto my radar from my older brother, who used to bring it home from university or wherever—it was the only thing I read that made sense on Ireland. And again, if it made sense on Ireland, why shouldn’t it make sense on other things—such as mass youth unemployment? I didn’t go to university until 1982, so I was part of the first post-war youth generation to experience a society of mass youth unemployment.
I joined the Hammersmith branch of the SWP in 1979, I think a week after the events in Southall. Given the prominence of what happened to Blair Peach and all the reconstructions, I’m pretty sure that if the Special Patrol Group jumped out of their transit and ran to the right rather than to the left, it could well have been me you were reading about. And it was in Hammersmith branch that I met another member, Madga Foresti.
A few months later there was the Right to Work march from Liverpool to Blackpool (the slightly more famous one, which I went on as well, was in 1982 and involved trying to link up with the TUC's “People's March for Jobs”). This is where the orange jackets come from—one of which is obviously mine due to my felt pen scribblings on it. I ended up writing/coordinating the daily march bulletin/leaflet. I remember on the drive back down to London Pete Alexander and John Deason seemed to be very impressed with what I had done—but even then some instinct inside me made me keep a distance.
There was never a political problem though, because soon after this Madga Foresti had to go back to Napoli, and given that I was on the dole at the time I thought I'd take my chances in the European capital of unemployment. And I think I did a three-year stretch in the city, without interruption.’