Book Review The Autobiography of Chris Birch

A Wonderful Life
Chris Birch, My Life, St Christopher Press, 2010, £15.00 pb
This fascinating autobiography by the veteran Communist Chris Birch starts with a few famous quotes which, I suppose, are meant to sum up the author’s personal credo and view of the good life: “No man is an island, entire of itself” (John Donne); “Only connect” (E M Forster) and “Too much of a good thing can be wonderful” (Mae West).
If there is such a thing as a typical Communist then quite different quotes might well have been expected; but Chris is certainly no typical comrade, although he has remained a dedicated activist all his life and continues in his 83rd year to do his bit for the “good old cause” in his own inimitable way. He is a persistent practitioner of the dying art of letter writing and a person who, when he takes up a particular cause, sees it right through to the finish. The writer of this review briefly worked with Chris on the subs desk of The Morning Star in the mid-1980s and recalls his wry wit and dogged determination.
At 230 pages the book is the length of a novel and is easy to read and well written just like a good novel. Chris has lived life to the full and packs his personal history with anecdotes and incidents from his years as a Communist, when he worked variously as national treasurer of the Young Communist League in the 1950s and as a Morning Star journalist. He describes his work as a campaigner on a range of issues dear to his heart such as nuclear disarmament and support for those “killed by HIV”, which is how Chris refers to his friend Mark Ashton, a Communist who was struck down when only 26 years old and about whom Chris devotes a whole chapter of his book.
Born on the Caribbean island of St Kitts, Chris and his family later moved to Trinidad and then Barbados. He first came to England a year after the end of the Second World War and went to study at Bristol University. Chris became secretary of the student branch of the Communist Party. But his student days weren’t all politics and study. He has lived a happily married life with Betty for over sixty years and describes their first romantic encounter on the first day of the university’s autumn term in 1948 when he sold his future wife a copy of The Daily Worker; Betty later joined the party as well and “consequently we saw a lot of each other in the following months,” Chris comments ruefully.
Chris has a sharp memory and eye for detail which he puts to good use in conveying his various experiences, such as his very first encounter with snow during his first winter in England. The book is not without its humour; for example, while at university he began reading the Marxist classics voraciously and describes himself “complaining that Marx, Engels and Lenin wrote very badly, but Stalin wrote well”. Chris doesn’t define what he means by writing well, but attributes the blame to the translators in this instance. Inspired by reading the Red Dean of Canterbury Hewlett Johnson’s book, The Socialist Sixth of the World, Chris decided that he wanted to visit the USSR. Finding no easy way to get a visa, he describes how he ended up writing to Stalin personally “asking him if he could use his influence to get a visa. He did not reply…” This level of naivety seems quite improbable but we are assured that the anecdote is perfectly true. Chris eventually did get to Moscow in 1956, but by that time he had already travelled to Communist cities such as Prague, Warsaw and Budapest about which he also describes vividly.
The book contains a huge number of fascinating vignettes of the characters with whom Chris has worked or come into contact with over the decades, such as the then Communist Val Sherman who later reinvented himself as the speech writer for Sir Keith Joseph and Margaret Thatcher and became Sir Alfred Sherman.
The book is extremely well produced, with a clear typeface and a generous selection of colour and black and white photographs. Who could have expected anything less from someone with such a long career in print journalism? Chris has also been a skilled designer and one of his claims to fame is to have designed the Communist Party membership card which was in use in the 1980s. Chris Birch has produced a very readable and entertaining book and it is to be highly recommended.
David Morgan

1 Response to “Book Review The Autobiography of Chris Birch”

  1. 4 May 2016 at 10:47 am

    Have only just seen this. Many thanks, Dave. You are very kind.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

December 2011

%d bloggers like this: